Cavendish has 30 stage wins to his name at the Tour – four shy of Eddy Merckx’s record – but has not won a race in more than two years. Last year, he was controversially left out of Dimension Data’s Tour squad, ending 12-year run of consecutive appearances at the race.
Now riding for Bahrain McLaren, Cavendish is said to be fully healthy again after his struggles with Epstein Barr virus. He made his season debut at last week’s Saudi Tour, and while he didn’t compete for a victory, he had a hand in helping fellow sprinter Phil Bauhaus to two stage wins and the overall title.
Speaking to Cyclingnews, Ellingworth voiced his confidence in Cavendish’s ability to get back to winning ways, but suggested the Tour de France is far from even pencilled in on his calendar.
"Nobody is guaranteed for the Tour. It’s a certain type of Tour this year, and I’m not shying away from saying that it’s an excellent Tour de France for Mikel Landa," Ellingworth said, referring to the Spanish climber who will lead the team’s charge for the overall title.
The question is whether Bahrain will follow Ellingworth’s old employers in focusing squarely on the general classification, or whether there’s room for a sprinter and one or two lead-out men.
"There potentially is, yes," Ellingworth said. "We’ve got a long way to go yet but it could be part of the plan. I think it can be done, definitely."
Cavendish would still need to prove he’s worth one of the eight spots, and can’t simply rely on his palmarès.
"For Mark, if he’s winning and performing well, why would we not think about going on that journey and trying to be the greatest stage winner in Tour de France history? That dream is still there, he knows it’ll be a hard challenge. If he’s winning at WorldTour level, why wouldn’t we take him?"
Ellingworth feels Cavendish had the ability to win at the Saudi Tour, but that race circumstances meant he wasn't able to show what he could do.
On stage 2, Cavendish crashed twice and decided to invert the hierarchy and work for Bauhaus, who placed second. The following day, he was the designated sprinter but let a gap open as Bauhaus was leading him out, leaving the German to sail to the stage win and into the leader's jersey, which had to be defended from there on.
"He called that, to say 'don’t commit to me - if I’m ok, I’ll commit to Phil'. For me, that was 10 out of 10. It was an opportunity missed in a way, but 10 our of 10 for his commitment to the team," Ellingworth said.
"Then obviously the GC played out, so again he committed to it with Phil and I know Phil was very appreciative of that. I certainly think that last stage, Cav could have won that himself. I have no doubt at all that his condition is good enough. It was the way the race played out.
"For Mark individually, physically he’s in the right place. He’s got some work to do still, but he’s certainly on track. Then there’s also the confidence around going for that sprint and putting yourself on the line. That’s not easy."
'He doesn't dare to win anymore'
The idea of Cavendish 'putting himself on the line' is an interesting one, in light of an observation made in Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad during the Saudi Tour. In a huddled debrief beyond the finish line of stage 2, a Bahrain McLaren rider reportedly said of Cavendish: "It’s like he doesn’t dare to win anymore."
Ellingworth looked to play down those comments but acknowledged the psychological toll on Cavendish and the process of 'building him back up' to winning ways.
"I don’t know if it’s about 'don’t dare try and win' – I don’t think that’s true," Ellingworth said. "What he’s referring to there was Mark didn’t put himself on the line on that day, because of that crash. If he hadn’t had the crash, we would’ve worked for Mark and I think he would have gone for it. He didn’t put himself on the line that day, he didn’t want to commit and let the team down, knowing that Phil could get a good result, so think they were a little bit misled there, maybe.
"For somebody who’s been such a great winner, not to have won prolifically over the past couple of years must be quite hard mentally, but that’s where we, as a team, are working well with him. It’s about building him back up into being a winner again. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we knew what would happen in the future, we’d make a lot of money. All I know is he’s doing really well at the minute. He’s certainly in a good place, and we’re super happy with him."
Cavendish will next race at the UAE Tour, where he’ll have Marco Haller for support in a squad largely built around a general classification push for Wout Poels. After that, it’s Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, and perhaps a smattering of Belgian one-day races.
Beyond that, into the summer and into the future, it's still up in the air.
"The game we’re playing with him is step-by-step," Ellingworth said.
"In terms of his health, we’ve now ticked that box. He had really struggled on and off - that’s what that virus does, it limits you, you can’t go deep, you can’t back up day after day - but he’s been training well for four months so that’s good. Then you have the race condition, which has not been there for a while, but we’ve ticked that box now.
"He still wants to win for himself. 100 per cent we want to see Mark Cavendish with his arms in the air again. Where that will be and how it will happen, that’s the question."