Frustrated Cavendish happy to accept his extra domestique role
THE STRANGEST sight of the 2012 Tour de France has been that of Mark Cavendish carrying water bottles for his team-mates and dropping back to collect rain capes when the weather looks threatening. There was even the rare spectacle of the world’s fastest sprinter leading the peloton very carefully down the damp descent from the Port de Lers to the foot of the Mur de Peguere on Sunday.
None of this has fitted with the accepted image of the Manx Missile, the world champion whose only objective is to cross the finishing line with his arms held high. But Cavendish is the product of a deep love of cycling history as well as of an incandescent natural talent, and he is well aware of the value of what he has been doing over the past fortnight.
“It’s not about him here,” his friend David Millar said yesterday, “and that’s always a bit difficult for Cav. But if he ends up with his palmares, among everything else he’s done, including being a member of the first British team to win the Tour de France, as the reigning world champion, that’s a great thing for him to have in years to come.”
It will, as Millar pointed out, be “about him” once again in 10 days’ time, when the two will be members of the British quintet in the Olympic road race, for which Cavendish will start as favourite. Until then he has accepted a role as an extra domestique in the effort to keep Bradley Wiggins in the yellow jersey all the way to Paris, while watching rivals such as Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan win stages that might have been his.
“It’s frustrating,” Cavendish said yesterday while the Tour teams rested at their hotels in and around Pau, “but that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with the situation we’re in right now. We’re in the yellow jersey, the iconic symbol in cycling. To have that beats everything.
“He [Wiggins] helped me win the world championship and I’m helping him win the yellow jersey. It’s not a computer game where your energy level goes straight back up in time for the next day. It’s taking its toll on people. So if I can do my fair share to help, the guys who’ll be needed in this last week can save themselves as much as possible.”
And on Sunday, all being well, he will be unleashed in an attempt to win his second stage in the 2012 Tour by taking the sprint on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth year in a row. That would bring him to 22 Tour stage victories, level with Andre Darrigade, the most successful sprinter in the history of the race, although the Frenchman – now 83 – achieved his wins over more than a decade while the Englishman is in only his sixth Tour.
But there are obstacles in the way. Today and tomorrow the riders undertake two daunting stages among the legendary climbs of the high Pyrenees. Cavendish has made successful efforts to improve his climbing in time for the Olympic race – he was proud of finishing a mountain stage the other day ahead of the gruppetto containing the others sprinters – but there is always the danger that he will get into trouble and finish outside the designated cut-off time, determined on a sliding scale according to the difficulty of the course and the winner’s average speed.
Such a threat would present his team managers with a dilemma, particularly in the event of Wiggins coming under attack from rivals, such as Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali, who will be seeing the Pyrenees as their last chance to tear the yellow jersey off the Sky leader’s shoulders.
“That’s where you’d have to prioritise,” Dave Brailsford, Sky’s team principal, said yesterday. “Mark’s in good shape and I’m sure he’ll be fine but, if Nibali’s up the road and Cav’s going to miss the cut-off, do you say, hold on a sec, we’ll just wait? You wouldn’t do it. But the race will dictate what happens. If you start overthinking those kinds of issue, you lose. You’ve got to focus on the front of the race and what’s going on there.”
For Cavendish, too, the priority is clear. “I’ve always said a team is like a machine and you find the most efficient way to win a bike race,” he said yesterday. “In the past I’ve been the one who crossed the line. Now I’m a bit further up in the chain of events. If Bradley wins, we’re doing our job and raising the profile of the sport in our country and making history. It’s irrelevant what part of the chain you’re in.”