Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) just can't stop winning. Sound familiar? If any confirmation was still required, the Manxman proved he is once again the force of old as he won his fourth stage at this Tour de France – his greatest haul since he was riding in a HTC jersey and flanked by that famous lead-out train.
Between 2008 and 2011, Cavendish won four, six, five, and five Tour stages, but after the disbandment of HTC – with the move to Sky and subsequently QuickStep, there was the sense he lost his way.
The wilderness years, as some would have it, were not as disappointing as they may seem on the face of it – only when viewed through the prism of the freakish dominance until that point. Six stage wins from three Tours (if we discount 2014 where he crashed out on the opening day); it's a record that would make the careers of many a sprinter.
There were mitigating circumstances in the form of Sky's rigid commitment to Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and the fact that the QuickStep train never clicked like HTC, though many suspected it was terminal. "He's past 30 and lost his leg speed," some said, though Cavendish regularly refuted any such decline. He has been proved right – emphatically so.
So what has changed? He's in a new team with some old teammates, but this isn't the ‘getting the old band back together' narrative that came with his switch to Dimension Data. Rather, it's the track that has made the difference. Cavendish has changed his focus this season in a bid to win an Olympic medal, but rather than the physical changes one might associate with training on the boards – such as greater leg speed and fast-twitch muscle strength – it's the psychological element that Cavendish credits with his resurgence.
"A lot of people ask what the difference this year, with the track, and to be fair it is the track but it's not really what people think," he explained in his post-stage press conference in the grounds of the bird sanctuary at Villars-les-Dombes.
"It's not that I've got more leg speed or strength – I'm exactly the same physically as I have been in the last years – but it's just that you kind of refresh your racing nous when riding the track. You learn to be patient, to assess situations really quickly, and that's been part of the advantage this year. I've been a lot more patient than I was last year.
"What you saw today, it's normally instinct to jump when the person in front of you jumps. I knew Marcel [Kittel] would be on the front early, I assessed it with 2km to go, they had four guys and that's not enough into a headwind. In fact his team did a really good job, [Fabio] Sabatini did more than I thought he would, but Kittel ultimately spent too long on the front and it was a case of waiting until he lost his peak speed and jumping round him in the final."
Cavendish must have relished once again getting the better of Kittel, whose eight stage victories across two Tours in 2013 and 2014 had signalled a changing of the guard.
Coming into this Tour, he had never beaten the strapping German in a sprint they'd both contested, but he has now turned the tables dramatically. And Kittel cut a frustrated figure on stage 14 as he remonstrated with his foe for what he saw as deviation from his line.
"We didn't have time to talk – he hit me on the back but I thought he was saying well done," Cavendish said with a smile.
"I didn't see it – I was in front of him – the first I knew about it was when I was next to. I saw it again and we've come together but if you look at him next to the barriers it's him who comes off the barriers more than anything."
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All the way to Paris
This is the Cavendish of old, but he's not done yet. When he announced his plans to shine at the Tour de France and claim Olympic gold on the track it was seen, if not outlandish, as audacious, and there were even fellow pros wondering if he'd bitten off more than he could chew.
Team GB would certainly like to see Cavendish make an early exit from the Tour in order to optimise his preparation for Rio, and that has been the question hanging over the 31-year-old since the Grand Départ. However, he seems determined to go all the way to Paris, and he's already thinking about equalling his best-ever Tour haul of six.
"There are two more sprint opportunities I think. Monday in Bern, it's not an easy sprint but it's a sprint and it's on Nelson Mandela day so it's important for the team.
"I said I'm not going to put myself over the edge. If I get sick or I'm on my hands and knees I'll have to stop, but I feel in good shape, the morale in the team is good, so I'll carry on as long as I can."
Tour de France stage 14 highlights video
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