After a spring disrupted by crashes and a 2017 campaign virtually wiped out through bad luck and illness, this year's Tour de France takes on added significance for Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data). Not only is there the matter of winning a first Grand Tour stage in almost two years, the quest for Eddy Merckx's 34-stage record against an ever-increasing depth in the sprint competition, but Cavendish is also out of contract at the end of the season and by all accounts still on the market.
However, at the Dimension Data press conference on Thursday, Cavendish cut a relaxed figure. He's been here before, of course, written off too many times to note, only to come back and dominate in the sprint fields of the Tour. The years may be totting up and the aches and pains of injuries becoming more acute, but there is no doubt that the 33-year-old is still hungry to break Merckx's record.
"It's an incentive and really it's the only thing I've got left to do," said the former road world champion and Milan-San Remo winner.
"It's not really a target that you have when you set out at the start of your career, but in terms of races that I can physically win, I've pretty much done everything. The others that I set out to win at the start of my career, they've changed so much that they're not the races I set out to win anymore. The number is so close, but it's still far away. I always say that one stage makes a rider's career, let alone one a year, or multiple stages in a year. It's harder than it looks. I'll try and do it before the end of my career, that's for sure."
While Cavendish's pedigree and legacy cannot be played down, the reality is that two crashes and an incident at the Abu Dhabi Tour, where he was taken out by a race vehicle, have dominated his season so far. The likes of Fernando Gaviria and Peter Sagan have already hit their form, while Cavendish has tasted victory just once. At the press conference he played down the nature of his tumbles but he, more than anyone in the room, knows that the best way to shift the nature of the narrative is by winning.
"One of the crashes was due to a failure in my bike," he said, pointing to his fall in the TTT at Tirreno Adriatico.
"I'm riding along in a team time trial and the next thing my bike malfunctions. There's nothing you can do, so ultimately what can do you? That's two crashes in a year. There are some guys that crash more than that in one race. The mainstream press don't really dwell on it… it's not all of you… but the online cycling press jump on that… not all of you but it gets clicks for you. My name and a crash is going to create more clicks than another name and a crash. It doesn't mean that I crash a lot - because I don't - and I'm lucky that the people around me put confidence in me."
As for objectives, a stage win would be the perfect tonic for a rider has endured a barren run after growing accustomed to regular Tour success. The green jersey, which Cavendish has won just once, is not an aim.
"The green jersey hasn't come into my thinking for a few years now. The points system has changed with the big intermediate bonus in stages and there were years when I'd win five or six stages and not win green. Ultimately it didn't really work for my own personal goals because once a certain Peter Sagan came along, once he gets over one climb in the Alps, he just has to do that for four days and he's already 80 points up and that puts everyone else out of contention. There's no sprinter that goes for the green jersey now other than Sagan."
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