Triple Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) has revealed that less than an hour after the race had started in Brittany, he had serious, if brief, doubts about his participation in this year's Tour de France.
Cavendish was speaking to the media shortly after taking his third stage win in a week in the 2021 Tour, and his team's fourth in the race.
But despite his undoubted domination in the sprints, Cavendish said that following his last-minute replacement of Sam Bennett in the Belgian team's lineup he had started the Tour with some sizable question marks hovering over his head abut the wisdom of doing so.
"In all honesty, after the first 20 kilometres on the first day, I thought to myself 'what the fuck have you done?'" Cavendish told reporters. "The speed they [the peloton] was going at... it was like 'What I have wished for here?'"
"But you just get into it. Every year you forget. You get to Paris and think that's the worst thing ever done. But by Tuesday, you're already looking forward to the next."
If Cavendish had his doubts about his participation, Cavendish's chance of success was a subject of hot debate in the early part of the race.
Semi-official newspaper L'Equipe, for one, ran an article entitled simply 'Will Cavendish win Tour stages?' with Johan Museeuw quoted as saying it wouldn't happen, while Marcel Kittel was convinced of the opposite.
Even one stage victory would have been enough to answer that question. But if Cavendish was the only rider to take more than one stage this year in the race's first week, the second has barely begun and he has already put even more distance between himself and the rest of the field.
And despite his doubts, Cavendish argued that "If I needed to go to the Tour, I was prepared to go. I knew at the very least I would be competitive."
"For the first time in a long time, I had no excuses to fall back on. This year everything was perfect, equipment, the team, the sprint preparation. There was no reason why shouldn't be competitive."
With each fresh stage win bringing him closer to the mythical total of 34, the question about the Eddy Merckx record has become an elephant in the room with Cavendish. Although the press corps opted to take a break on that question on Tuesday, one French TV reporter did stick her head above the virtual parapet to ask him.
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can in the Tour de France. That's my answer," was Cavendish's good-humoured, if brief, response.
The sprint itself into Valence saw Cavendish receive what looked like the most faultless lead out in this year's Tour to date. The 36-year-old confirmed that saying when he was younger he remembered buying cycling magazines that would have articles with textbook cases on how guiding a sprinter through the final kilometres worked "and today was a case study."
Quite apart from the finale, the Briton pointed out, "It was all about keeping me fresh and then staying up front and that's where Tim [Declercq] comes in. And if you looked on every corner, Dries [Devenyns] was there, taking me through.
"I had the guys deliver me to the finish line there perfectly. I didn't have to do anything today. They were phenomenal. And I'm proud to be part of that."
Cavendish's relentless run of success also sparked a question as to why he could follow an inverse pattern to Elia Viviani, who won 12 races with the Belgian squad in 2019 then nothing the following year in Cofidis. Compared with 2020 and 2019, having rejoined Deceuninck-QuickStep, Cavendish has gone in the opposite direction in 2021 with a vengeance.
Cavendish argued it "wouldn't fair to talk about guys who have come and gone," but he did reflect that "my mentality of bike racing is the same as most riders in Deceuninck-QuickStep. And from personal experience, the mindset here has a massive bearing on how the results play out."
There are still at least three more potential bunch sprint stages in this year's race and given Cavendish's run of success, the Merckx record beckons. But in one sense, the most important result for Cavendish in this year's race is the one that he won't directly witness. That's the chance he has of showing people who have battled against their own health issues, mental and physical, that it is possible to overcome those obstacles.
Or as Cavendish himself put it, "If people can be inspired by what I've done, then that's the greatest joy I can get out of this Tour de France."
And no matter how many stages he finally wins or whichever record does or does not fall, there can be no disagreement or doubts about that.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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