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CARENTAN, France (CT) – Good things come to those who wait. Mark Cavendish has been a professional for the past decade, has ridden nine Tours and, prior to Saturday’s opening stage of the 2016 Tour de France, had notched up 26 stage wins at the event.
However one of his few remaining goals — a stint in the Tour’s hallowed maillot jaune — had eluded him.
That quest finally bore fruit on Saturday when the “Manx Missile” hurtled home first at Utah Beach, in Normandy. Cavendish came off Peter Sagan’s wheel and held off a hard-sprinting Marcel Kittel to the line. Indeed it was Kittel who faded, with the German having to sit down in the saddle inside the final 50 metres as he lost momentum.
The victory was a particularly sweet one for Cavendish. It proved that he isn’t past his best, it relieved a bucketload of pressure, and it also completed a long-running ambition of his.
The win also earned Team Dimension Data its first stint in the leader’s jersey of the sport’s biggest race.
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 2, 2016
With all that in mind, it is little wonder that Cavendish bore a beaming grin when he ground to a halt 300 metres after the finish line. He was quickly engulfed by hugging teammates, picture-snapping photographers, and journalists desperate to grab a first reaction amid the celebratory chaos.
“I am very happy to have won here today and put on this yellow jersey for the first time in my career,” he said after the podium presentation. “My team are incredible and I am super happy to finally get to wear this jersey.”
Asked as to how the sprint played out, he explained that it was as much to do with tactics as strength. He said that a strong tailwind was expected in the finale but close to the sprint the wind direction changed slightly.
“Mark [Renshaw] and Edvald [Boasson Hagen] went hard then and I thought, ‘no, I don’t want to have to go long [sprint early]. I can imagine it is going to drop.’
“I knew at the Tour de France you don’t hesitate. I was on Mark’s wheel, it was long. I was able to follow, I was waiting. I wanted to get a run at it. Actually Sagan kicked first. I originally thought that I would, but then the wind changed. So I went directly in his slipstream.”
At that point in time Kittel went on the left. That was the crucial moment. “It was quite fortunate in that Sagan left a gap on the right and I had to take the opportunity when I saw it. Kittel reached his terminal velocity, his maximum speed, but I knew I still had something in it. So I carried on to the line, hoping that nobody got the slingshot past me. I saw the line coming and it felt great.”
Cavendish also paid tribute to the fallen soldiers commemorated at Utah Beach. “There was no better place to achieve this than Utah Beach where soldiers died for our freedom in the western world,” he said. “When I was young I wanted to be involved with the Armed Forces in the UK. I’ve enjoyed the ceremony we’ve had after the stage. to pay a tribute to those who died at war. It’s my way to also thank my friends from the Armed Forces.”
Renshaw has been a teammate for several years, helping Cavendish to a spate of successes with HTC-Highroad, Etixx-QuickStep, and now with Dimension Data.
He was equally delighted after the finish line.
“It is perfect. I went about 600 [metres] out. He was, I think, two or three wheels back. I had the speed to come out.”
Cavendish then used that as a platform for his winning surge.
The Manxman notched up one stage win in at 2015 Tour, while Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) tallied up four. Some had suggested Cavendish was no longer the sprinter he was in the past, but Renshaw was clear when he was asked if he had believed a win was possible on Stage 1.
“Of course,” he answered without hesitation. “It is Mark Cavendish. It gives him fire in the belly when you write him off. Being an underdog like we were makes it so much more special. And yellow too – he has never had one, so that is a massive achievement.”
Ryder: To have the yellow jersey is incredible
If Renshaw was beaming, Team Dimension Data Principal Douglas Ryder was ecstatic. The South African has guided the team from Continental to WorldTour level and seen the project expand into a major success story.
“I tell you, the rise of this team has just been exceptional,” he told CyclingTips. “To be in our first year as a WorldTour team and then to come to this race with Mark, who was so under pressure and who so badly wanted this as well, just because he wanted it for the team and wanted to win another stage. Of course the yellow jersey is a bonus.
“For us to have a yellow jersey in our second Tour de France, that is incredible. Really, really amazing. So I can’t believe it, actually. I’m super stoked.”
Cavendish is known as a rider who has intense focus when he is up for a win. Ryder said that he had that burning desire prior to the start of the stage, and that his behaviour made the South African believe that something special was in store.
“He hasn’t been sure of his form. He obviously had a really good and hard British national championships, but he wasn’t 100 percent sure with all the track work that he has done,” he said. “But I could see this morning that he was nervous and tense, which is always a good thing. He was kind of angry, which is also a good thing.
“For him to come through like this gives him so much confidence.”
One of the team’s biggest aims is to give the Qhubeka charity much needed publicity and also raise funds for it. It has the mission of trying to put young South Africans on bikes and this is something that the team’s riders have fully embraced.
Cavendish was keen to emphasise the importance of this link, saying that it gave him additional motivation.
“I am in a team that rides for more than just our sponsors,” he said. “Team Dimension Data is a special team that rides for the continent of Africa. It really is a special team to ride with and ride for. There is a great mentality.
“Fifty percent of what we do is more than performance. The Qhubeka charity put 5000 children on bicycles in the continent of Africa. There is no better way to do that than by wearing the most iconic symbol in cycling, which is the yellow jersey. I am super happy to do that with the team and the guys I have. Hopefully I can do this jersey some justice tomorrow.”
It remains to be seen if he can defend his race lead. Thanks to the time bonuses he will begin the stage four seconds ahead of Kittel, six up on Sagan, and ten ahead of the rest of the bunch. However the stage to Cherbourg concludes with a short, steep uphill ramp to the line and it is uncertain how Cavendish will fare.
He said that he will do what he can to hold on, but will alternatively help Edvald Boasson Hagen if that is deemed to be the better option.
Ryder said the important thing is that the initial pressure has been lifted.
“We looked at the stages beforehand and we said, okay, if it wasn’t today, there is a possibility the day after tomorrow and the day after that,” he stated. “But he so badly wanted to do it on the first day and get that behind him. To get that elephant off his back.
“I am so stoked for him and the whole team. And our new partners, Dimension Data and Deloitte, for the Qhubeka charity this is massive for us. It is unbelievable.”
‘I want to see him beat the Merckx record’
In recent years the rider who has started taking the Tour sprints early on — Marcel Kittel in 2013 and 2014 and André Greipel last year — has dominated those battles during the race. Kittel took four stage wins in the first two years, while Greipel equalled that feat twelve months ago.
Does Renshaw believe that Cavendish can also have a run of successes?
“Yes, for sure,” he said “For sure he can win again. I want to see him break Merckx’s record.”
The Australian is referring to the 34 Tour stage wins held by Eddy Merckx, the most successful rider of all time. Cavendish gathered the bulk of his stages in the early part of his career, setting a ferocious momentum, and many predicated that the Merckx record was vulnerable.
Cavendish has played this down, but Renshaw believes it is possible.
“It is maybe not on his mind, but I would love to be part of that,” he said. “It would make my career pretty special.”
As for Ryder, he too believes that the early success can bring more strong results.
“I think he is definitely going to have momentum,” he said. “This will lift the whole team because with Bernie [Bernard Eisel], with Renshaw, with all of these guys, it will give them that sense of belief that it can happen and that they did it.
“So many times this year we have looked at what could have been and what should we have done a little differently. And now it works. Of course it will lift them big time. They will be riding like they are an inch taller for the next few days. So I am super happy for them, and for the team.”
Cavendish received congratulations from many riders after his success, both at the finish and also on social media.
As a result of this a TV journalist speaking with Cavendish after the podium presentation asked him if the respect of his peers was important.
Cavendish said that opinions are mixed about him, but that he appreciates those who he is close to.
“To be fair, a lot of guys fucking hate me in the peloton,” he said. “But to be fair, that was a lot in my past. The thing is, it is easy to forget this is my tenth Tour de France. From the beginning I had the pressure to win. I kind of don’t know anything different.
“But ever since 2008 it has been ‘the end of me.’ That is just how it is. I guess it is something to talk about. I am just lucky that there are some great people in cycling. As well as people I don’t get on with, I have some incredible friends that the sport has given me. I have been part of some of the best teams in the world and I have made some incredible friends. That is what is important.”
Cavendish said that keeping the bigger picture in mind has also been important for him.
“My wife wrote me a card the other day. She said, ‘I know sometimes it might get on top of you, but these are the days that you will look back on in a few years, and smile remembering that.’”
Cavendish is planning on gathering a few more special memories in the weeks ahead, and a standout will be lining out in yellow on Sunday’s second stage.