Sprinters don’t tend to have long peaks in cycling. For every Erik Zabel or Robbie McEwen who dominates the Tour de France for half a decade, you have bushels of Thor Hushovds and Alessandro Petacchis—who win one points competition and a decent amount of stages, but never hold onto the crown of “World’s Best Sprinter” for long. A year ago, it appeared Mark Cavendish’s Zabel-esque reign over the world’s biggest race was over. But this year, the British rider has reclaimed it in emphatic fashion, while adding more legitimacy to his claim as the greatest sprinter of all time.
After winning 26 stages during his incredible 2008-2013 run, Cavendish crashed out in the Tour’s only visit to his hometown in 2014, then followed it up with just a single stage at last year’s Tour. To make matters worse, he left powerhouse Etixx-Quick Step for Dimension Data, a debutante WorldTour team. His replacement at EQS, Marcel Kittel, started to overtake him and beat him in straight-up speed sprints, and Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel started picking off wins as well. Cycling News slotted in all three ahead of Cav in their 2016 green jersey preview and said that came to the race “as a bit of an unknown.”
Kittel and Sagan have each taken stages at the Tour, but through six stages, the race belongs to Cav. He won the grand depart out of Mont Saint-Michel with a dominant sprint to take his first yellow jersey, the only career milestone he had yet to pick up. Look how he slots in right behind Peter Sagan and lets him tow him to the line.
Two stages later, he picked out Greipel’s wheel, and somehow managed to pop out from behind him while getting pushed outwards toward the barriers to take the closest Tour win I’ve seen in years.
This morning, he switched it up and led the sprint out himself. Perhaps because he’s so small, he maintained a high enough speed and didn’t let anyone come around him.
Cavendish is a strange breed of sprinter, because he doesn’t generate the raw power of Greipel or Kittel because he’s half a foot shorter than both. He doesn’t have Peter Sagan’s ability to win uphill drag finishes, but he gets so low and aerodynamic on his bike that he’s hard to follow (as that third win shows). He’s also utterly unafraid to squeeze into small gaps and bully his way up to the front. Sprinters have to be hard-nosed, and Cav is as pugilistic as they come, a quality that cost him a chance to win in the U.K. two years ago.
There are a handful more stages Cav can win at this Tour, but he’s already passed Bernard Hinault for second-most Tour stage wins, and is now seven wins clear for the most mass start stages ever. He will likely retire as the greatest sprinter of all time. It’s rare to have an all-timer still racing without a clear decline on the horizon. It looked for a while that Cavendish was done, but the best surprise of the first week of this Tour has been Cavendish’s return to the front of the peloton and the revelation that his decline hasn’t yet begun.