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CATANIA, Italy (VN) — Mark Cavendish reminded everyone yet again Sunday that it’s foolish to underestimate him in a bunch sprint.
The merry “Manxster” had the last laugh along the shore of Lake Balanton, and won a long drag race against some of the fastest and strongest legs in the Giro d’Italia and reclaimed his crown as the king of kick.
As if there was any doubt.
Any nay-sayers about Cavendish and his ability to finish off sprints despite his remarkable Tour de France comeback last summer were left eating their goulash again this weekend.
In fact, Cavendish threw a few barbs at his direct rivals Caleb Ewan and teammate Fabio Jakobsen, insisting that Ewan is faster and Jakobsen is stronger, but he is the one that keeps on winning.
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Cavendish was also quick to thank his teammates from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and the seamless leadout that set him up with a red carpet pathway to victory.
Cav was back in full splendor Sunday in what’s just the latest chapter of an extraordinary story.
Ever since he emerged as a teenage prodigy in the UK junior program, he never really looked like a bike racer who would break records and rattle off victories across the decades.
And coming into the start line in Budapest, he certainly didn’t look like he was in great shape for the Giro either.
But looks can be deceiving, and he’s been proving that time and again across his entire career.
Short, compact, and with stubby legs, Cavendish in many ways snubbed his nose at the notion of what a modern cyclist, obsessed with weights, watts, and wellness, should look like.
Cavendish isn’t known for his love of intense training or slavish attention to diet, but what he does love is racing his bike. And there he was Sunday, celebrating his 16th career Giro win, and his first since last racing the corsa rosa nine years ago.
Cavendish is one of those lucky few in the world’s gene pool who seems born to race a bike.
Yet it takes a lot more than just agreeable mitochondria to win mass sprints in the Giro.
Sprinters are a different breed. Fearless, anxious, and ambitious, the peloton’s sprinters are much like the galloping four-legged brethren in a horse race. No one wins by holding back.
Seeing Cavendish burn to victory Sunday ahead of the elite of the peloton should never truly come as a surprise. Yet, for some, it still does.
Cavendish has been surpassing expectations in the sport ever since his emergence nearly two decades ago, when he once famously quipped he’d probably be a “fat banker” if he wasn’t preternaturally wired to race bikes.
Unfortunately, Cavendish also had his ups and downs. Crashes and setbacks are inevitable in any bike racing career, but his long-running bout with the Epstein Barr virus that derailed him near the peak of his powers is what revealed his true winning character.
A tearful Cavendish broke down in emotion at the end of 2020 when he realized that his days as a racer might be over. Patrick Lefevere gave him a lifeline, and with a “bike that fit me” and the “Wolfpack” to gather around, Cavendish slowly came back from the edge of retirement.
It was during those few years in the wilderness that many were quick to write him off. With a new generation of sprinters coming up, no one ever expected the “Manxster” to return to his winning ways, especially at the Tour.
Cavendish’s summer of speed in 2021 was one of the best comeback stories in recent cycling lore.
Yet Cavendish wouldn’t extend his revelry to the media. No slight, real or perceived, escapes his elephant-like memory, and when the once-critical media came back last summer with gushing superlatives, Cavendish wasn’t having any of it.
Despite the feel-good story, the British speedster remains a crabby customer with the media, and he’s largely written off the written press. He either refuses to take questions or if he does, provides only short, tart answers.
And never ask him about the Merckx record or if he will be racing the 2022 Tour this summer.
And that’s too bad, because not only is Cavendish one of the sport’s greatest sprinters, he’s also one of its largest personalities.
Instead of celebrating his victories with the media, he’s snubbing his nose at them. Most recently, he called out journalists at the start of this Giro for writing what he characterized as “cheap” stories about a perceived rivalry with Jakobsen.
Maybe the media deserves it, but winning in made-for-TV events like the Giro or the Tour doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Media is simply part of the bike racing landscape, and back in the day, a Cavendish press conference and one-on-one interview was always a delight and full of surprises and insight into his sometimes complex and intriguing character.
By avoiding the media or by selecting to only communicate via only carefully crafted social media messages, Cavendish is also holding back part of the history and emotion of the final chapters of his extraordinary career.
It’s a shame the world isn’t seeing and experiencing the full Cavendish experience in these extraordinary times.
Key Cavendish statistics
Here are some key stats on Cavendish’s victory Sunday:
16 — number of career Giro stage wins
36 years, 352 days — Cavendish age as oldest non-Italian Giro stage winner
53 — number of grand tour stage wins
74.7 — maximum speed of final sprint in kph
160 — number of career victories
1,010 — average power in watts
1,280 — max power in watts
Drone Hopper watch: Chasing two classifications on breakaway at a time
Drone Hopper is two for two so far in this Giro, and was on the march again in Sunday’s second road stage at the 2022 Giro. The Italian second-tier team put two riders into the day’s main three-day breakaway.
Of course, with the top sprint teams champing at the bit for a mass gallop, the break had as many chances of making it to the line as an ice cube in August. Yet they attacked anyway.
One pro told VeloNews that efforts like that add up during the course of a three-week stage race, especially for anyone hoping to be at the sharp end of the race going deep in week three. And that’s why almost no other teams even bother.
Yet for Drone Hopper, along with some of the other smaller teams in this Giro, it’s those “suicide” breaks that are their bread and butter.
Team boss Gianni Savio proudly points out that his team is a “guarantee” to be in the breakaways, and in many ways, at least his team helps liven up some of these otherwise routine transition stages. TV time and the occasional jersey are worthy rewards.
Also read: Gianni Savio back for another Giro
There is a bit of logic behind the Savio madness.
As he told me the other day, “the only way we have any chance to win a stage against the ‘bigs’ is to win out of a breakaway.” And occasionally it pays off. Fausto Masnada won a stage for Savio a few years back.
The team is also targeting two prizes during this Giro, including the “hot sprint” category and the prize for the most kilometers in a breakaway. That could Savio and his ragtag team a spot on the final podium ceremony in Verona.
The Giro is often a race within a race, and Savio’s Soldiers are always on the march.
Budapest reception surprises the peloton
Rider after rider was left enthralled by the warm and enthusiastic welcome from Hungarian fans during three days of racing for the 2022 “big start.”
I wrote last week in this column about how there was barely any sign of the Giro being in town, and that the race seemed to be lost in the enormity of the sprawling, thriving city on the Danube.
Yet come race day, hundreds of thousands of fans lined the routes in and around Budapest. Friday’s final climb saw Tour de France-like crowds and it was like a “wall of sound” in Saturday’s time trial as fans piled four-deep on a steep cobbled climb sector on the ramparts of the Budapest Castle.
A few riders grumbled about the extra travel and hassle of going to far-flung starts, but most of the riders seemed to take a real shining to Budapest and the Hungarian fans.
They better get used to the long travel. Four charter flights shuttled the peloton from Hungary to Sicily on Monday, and the Tour de France and Vuelta a España see “foreign starts” this year as well.