Ian O’Riordan: Mark Cavendish again producing least expected days

Frustration for Sam Bennett as veteran’s two stage wins secure him Tour’s green jersey

Such is the choice of sport in the air this weather that it’s sometimes easier and perhaps best to stick with what you know and want on any given day.

Which for me might be three or four hours of the Tour de France live on Eurosport in the afternoon, then ahead of The Breakaway highlights package maybe another episode of The Least Expected Day on Netflix, before catching up with The Move, Lance Armstrong's daily podcast on the Tour which goes out on YouTube just before bedtime.

Turns out The Least Expected Day has been hiding out on Netflix for a few weeks now, only brought to my attention when a former competitive cyclist recommended it as a suitably timed insight into the true tales and melodramatics of every Grand Tour, on and more importantly off the bike.

This is actually season two of the access-all-areas documentary inside the Spanish Movistar Team and their three Grand Tours of 2020 – the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España (season one followed them through 2019).


Part of the wonder here is that Movistar ever agreed to open their team buses and hotel rooms to reveal the often chaotic management and near-constant bickering and back-stabbing and clashing of egos, even if they all mostly end up killing each other with kindness.

They’re also the longest surviving team in the pro peloton – originally riding in 1980 as Reynolds, then Banesto, and since 2011 in the distinctive navy blue of Movistar, a brand of Spanish mobile giant Telefónica.

Even after all these years the lasting advice of their general manager Eusebio Unzué, the 66-year-old former mentor to Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain, seems to be that any day on a Grand Tour can turn out to be that least expected day.

The riders by turns appear touchingly vulnerable and outrageously resilient, (Richard Carapaz, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa all leaving for rival teams in 2020), leaving rising stars Marc Soler and Enric Mas and veteran Alejandro Valverde to lead the charge: Soler's insecurity is at times glaring, Soler also being one of the many riders caught up in Saturday's mass-pile up before the Stage 1 finish in Landernea, the result of that spectator holding up her placard before sense.

Soler didn’t start Stage 2 (God knows how he rode on in the first place), is threatening his own legal case against the spectator who caused the crash, and with that created his own special teaser for season three of The Least Expected Day, already in the making.

Still there's no denying the least expected day so far in this 2021 Tour was Mark Cavendish winning Tuesday's Stage 4 sprint finish into Fougères – in sheer execution alone – at least before he repeated the feat in the Stage 6 sprint finish into Châteauroux: the least expected day not just for Cavendish but for Sam Bennett too, given up until a couple of weeks ago Bennett was the rider from Deceuninck-QuickStep expected to be winning the sprint stages, not Cavendish; and by this point in the race too Bennett was expected be wearing the green jersey, not Cavendish.

There’s no denying either the extraordinary circumstances of Cavendish’s two wins so far (with six more likely sprint finishes still to come) or indeed the love and respect which has greeted them.

His 32 Tour wins now leaves him just two shy of Eddy Merckx’s 34, a record most thought would never be matched or bettered.

“This race has given my life to me,” Cavendish said after Stage 4. “And I’ve given my life to the Tour.”

Knee injury

Already the first rider in Tour history to win more than one stage in eight different Tours, Thursday’s victory in Châteauroux – repeating his feat of 2008 and 2011 –was another act of sporting defiance.

At age 36, it means Cavendish has now won Tour stages in three different decades, against three different generations of sprinters, and all in the same town. And he’s clearly not done yet.

For Bennett perhaps this could all be blamed on a simple twist of fate – as in the minor knee injury sustained during a training ride in early June, which ultimately cost him his central sprinting role in Deceuninck-QuickStep, clearing the way for Cavendish to take his place.

For Cavendish there was probably another twist too when his main sprint rival Caleb Ewan crashed at the finish of Stage 3, breaking his collarbone in four pieces.

The danger is there is some twisted irony and perhaps twisted psychology at play here too in the behaviour of the Deceuninck-QuickStep general manager Patrick Lefevere.

Ahead of Monday's Stage 3 start in Lorient, Lefevere was telling anyone willing to listen that Bennett was for some reason feigning the entire thing.

“I can’t prove Sam doesn’t have knee pain but I’m starting to think more and more that it’s more fear of failure than just pain,” he said, before adding: “If you fight like a devil and cry like a child because Bora-Hansgrohe treat you wrong and then after nearly 14 months you sign with the team again it says more about him than it does about me. I have balls, he doesn’t.”

Lefevere does have form here, the 66-year-old former Belgian pro known to kiss his riders when they’re up and kick them when they’re down. Still this is a dangerous tactic by any managerial standards, even if in part designed to sabotage some of Bennett’s reputation given it’s known he’s leaving the team at the end of the season, possibly returning to Bora-Hansgrohe.

It’s been suggested too Lefevere may be trying to provoke Bennett in some way, perhaps into a return to winning form for the rest of the season, and if what goes on at Movistar is anything to go by this may be all part of the at-times twisted business.

Deserves better

Bennett deserves better; by the time the then 29-year-old from Carrick-on-Suir sealed his second stage win of the 2020 Tour, only the fifth rider in history to win in Paris while also wearing the green jersey, only the second Irish rider is history to win that prize after Seán Kelly last won it in 1989, Lefevere claimed Bennett was "unbreakable".

Less than six months ago, at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step virtual presentation from its opening warm-weather training camp of the new season in Altea in southeast Spain, they were presented as the best Grand Tour sprinter of 2020 and the best Grand Tour sprinter of all time, and the sight of Bennett seated next to Cavendish had its own particular link in another way too.

Bennett’s breakthrough win in the professional ranks had come on Stage 5 of the 2013 Tour of Britain, where Cavendish was among the favourites he beat on the day.

Though riding on the same team for the first time in 2021, it appeared then there could be no disputing their roles – maybe only an access-all-areas documentary inside Deceuninck-Quick-Step revealing why between them they’ve now produced some of the least expected days in Tour history.