Back stage at the Palais des Congrès on Thursday, Mark Cavendish identified six or seven opportunities for sprinters on the route of the 2019 Tour de France. Par for the course for the modern Tour, but rather more chances than the Manxman has truly had over the past two editions of the race.
In 2017, Cavendish lined up in Dusseldorf still searching for form after Epstein Barr Virus had truncated his build-up and he left the race four days later after Peter Sagan's manoeuvre in the finishing straight in Vittel left him with a broken shoulder.
In 2018, Cavendish was, unbeknownst to himself, still stricken by the effects of that same bout of Epstein Barr Virus. He made little impression in the bunch finishes of the opening week before he finished outside the time limit on the mammoth Alpine leg to La Rosière on stage 11.
Cavendish's travails were put in context when it was revealed in August that he was still suffering from the Epstein Barr Virus. The RideLondon Classic in late July proved to be his final race of 2018, but the Manxman resumed training a week ago, while on Wednesday evening, Dimension Data confirmed that he had extended his contract with the team into 2019.
"It's nice to back on my bike finally," Cavendish said in Paris when asked about his health and the Epstein Barr Virus.
"I just have to monitor my health and hope that I stay okay really and that’s it. I'm looking forward to next year, that’s for sure. I was racing with it for 16 months. It’s not the second time I got it; it’s the same thing. It was misdiagnosed. I was racing with it for 16 months, so I’ve actually done all right to win some races.
"So I’ve taken those positives but I’m nervous in case I’ve done so much damage. You have to watch it, but I’ve got a good group of people around me. The team believes in me and that’s a good thing to get going for next year."
Cavendish has won just two races in his past two, abridged seasons – a stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2017 and a stage of the Dubai Tour this year – but the Manxman has always seemed at his most dangerous with a point to prove. He was, after all, not the most fancied sprinter on the eve of the 2016 Tour, only to win four stages and wear the yellow jersey for a day, before claiming an Olympic medal in the omnium a month later.
"How many times have people written me off? How many times have I been over in my career? In twelve years? How many times?" Cavendish asked.
"It takes people like me to give keyboard warriors something to do really."
Looking forward to 2019
Cavendish was not the only sprinter to fall victim to the severity of the 2018 Tour de France route through the Alps. Marcel Kittel was eliminated on the same day, while Dylan Groenewegen, André Greipel and Fernando Gaviria also left the race in the demanding second week.
"I was sick again, but I don't think I'd have reached Paris even if I was well," Cavendish confessed.
Although next year's Tour de France boasts some particular difficulties – it will be the first time in history that the race features three summit finishes above 2,000 metres in altitude – Cavendish believes that the climbing is doled out in more manageable portions than it was in 2018.
"When you’ve got six or seven sprint opportunities, that's good and that's fair. There's more climbing and probably more altitude metres, but 2018 was near-on impossible for most sprinters to reach Paris – just with the position of the climbs and the lay-out of the stages," Cavendish said.
"It's hard, there's a lot of climbing metres but we’ve got a few sprint opportunities and there’s a better chance of us reaching Paris next year. Although there's more climbing, if we work hard we can reach it. It's the most climbing metres but I don't know if it's the hardest. It's within our physiological realms, whereas 2018 was not within our physiological realms."
The 2019 Tour starts in Brussels to honour the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s maiden victory and Cavendish will set out still chasing the Belgian’s record of 34 stage victories.
Cavendish is second on the all-time list after bringing his haul of Tour stages wins to 30 in 2016. Circumstances have conspired to prevent him from adding to that tally since, but the race remains his raison d’être.
"It means everything to me," Cavendish said. "It means everything for every bike rider, even guys who don’t ride the road. Professional track riders at one point or another dreamt of riding the Tour de France. For me it’s everything, it’s my career. It’s the only reason I still ride my bike."
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