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Cavendish was within reach of an Eddy Merckx-equalling 34th Tour stage victory that would make the record books.
For a few seconds, it looked like history would need to wait another day as Cavendish was swamped in a melee of sprinters, boxed in several wheels back.
But there was no uncertainty in the way Michael Mørkøv emerged from the scrum with Cavendish on his wheel.
The Dane dug Cavendish out of the wheels and latched on to Iván Garcia Cortina’s charge. From there, it was a dead-cert that Cavendish would finish the effort to deliver a spectacular record-equalling win.
And just to rub salt in rival’s wounds, the quietly ruthless Mørkøv finished the job by lunging for second place.
Cavendish’s resurgence has been the story of this year’s Tour. But Mørkøv has been the one that let it be written.
The veteran leadout man has been indispensable in each of Cavendish’s four Tour stage wins, delivering the Manxman with clinical poise and precision in each of the proper bunch kicks of the race.
It’s not gone unnoticed.
“It’s a known fact Michael is the best leadout man in the world,” Cavendish said without hesitation at his rest day press conference Monday.
Mørkøv has received a swell of attention for his feats in France. But at 36 years of age, the Dane is no new kid on the block. His 16-year pro career has seen him working with some of the greatest sprinters of the generation, from Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan to Sam Bennett and Elia Viviani.
Former sprint great Marcel Kittel was left a spectator to a Mørkøv-led sprint train many times during his prolific career.
“He’s a king as a leadout man,” former rival and sprint great Marcel Kittel told AD.nl this week. “Many sprinters would win with him as the last man on the sprint train.”
Decades of rivalry becomes a prolific unity
Mørkøv and Cavendish have been making it look easy in their quartet of victories at this year’s Tour. But they’d barely worked together before the peloton rolled out of Brittany two weeks ago.
After spending all season working with Bennett, Mørkøv only first shared wheels with Cavendish last month at the Elstedenronde classic and a victory-bringing five days at the Belgium Tour.
But while the pair only became teammates this season, their relationship started decades ago.
Mørkøv and Cavendish first went head-to-head some 20 years ago in their years as junior track racers. The pair were somehow inseparable from then on, bumping bars through six-day track races, world cup Madisons, and grand tour bunch sprints.
Also read: Mørkøv’s Olympic Madison dream
“We’re the same age and we’ve raced against each other since we were 13 or 14 years old – we’ve known each other since a long way back,” Mørkøv told VeloNews ahead of the Tour.
“We were never on the same team before this year, but we raced a lot against each other. I feel I know him quite well even though we’ve hardly ridden together. It can take a little while to exactly understand each other in the sprints, but I feel we can get it together for the Tour quickly. We understand each other already.”
There had been a glimmering sense of inevitability that Cavendish and Mørkøv would do great things after Bennett was ruled out of this year’s Tour. The Manxman had charted an incredible return to form through the spring, and Mørkøv had the pedigree to translate that into victory in the biggest race in the world.
The anticipation and expectation grew – what could the newly reconciled sprint supremos do?
Mørkøv and Cavendish delivered in style with victory in the first true bunch sprint of the race on stage 4. It heralded the third successive Tour that Mørkøv had shepherded a sprinter to victory and Cavendish’s first Tour win since 2016.
Velodromes, VeloViewer, and nerves of steel
It’s no fluke that Mørkøv has been able to deliver near-countless successes for the men on his wheel. Each of his leadouts are forged from decades in the velodrome and hours of preparation on the computer.
“He comes from a track background so he sees the race and how to move,” Cavendish explained on the Tour’s first rest day. “He knows how to judge distances – guys who race track learn about how to judge space and how to run up on people.”
Mørkøv likewise pointed to his experience on the boards – he is a double world champion in the Madison – as being key to his ability to hold position and navigate the chaos of a bunch sprint. But Cavendish believes Mørkøv’s cool head is what makes him stand out, also providing the perfect antidote to the Manxman’s own fiery temper.
“He’s so calm – he’s the anti-me,” Cavendish said. “When I want to get a bit agitated I just know to follow him and he does it like that.”
It was Mørkøv’s confidence and composure that helped pull Cavendish from the sprint scrum to clear the way for his sprinter’s historic fourth win Friday. Mørkøv takes it as a responsibility to remain ice cold in the most frenetic of circumstances.
“When a sprinter has pressure on them or really wants to win, I make it so they only have to focus on the final hundred meters,” Mørkøv told VeloNews on a call last month. “I try to take the pressure away from them by making the decisions and putting them into the positions.
“And I think sprinters feel they are able to trust me. I give the guys the guidance, when to start, how hard. I do the thinking.”
And of course, YouTube, VeloViewer, and Google Maps all have a part to play. Mørkøv explained to VeloNews that he could spend up to an hour studying gradients, bends, road furniture, and wind directions ahead of a stage, as well as scouring the web for clips of rival sprinters and their trains.
But it’s not all clinical precision. Mørkøv retains the ability to race.
“It’s always instinct when it comes to the sprint,” he said. “I am prepared, but you have to rely on instinct and experience when it all happens.”
Patrick Lefevere’s prize possession
Few leadout men are as effective as Mørkøv, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step knows it.
Mørkøv was the fourth rider to be handed a contract renewal earlier this year, behind only world champ Julian Alpahilippe, Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen, and future superstar Remco Evenepoel.
The early extension is a testament to how much team boss Patrick Lefevere values the veteran sprint pilot.
“It’s a tap on the shoulder that the team feels that I’m important for them because, usually, you sign your leaders and sprinters first and then you try to build a team around them later,” Mørkøv said of his slot in the contract extension pecking order.
“When Patrick comes to me so early in the season, I take it as a compliment for what I’m doing here. I’m flattered that he sees me as one of his key riders for the future.”
It’s unknown who Mørkøv will be working with in the seasons to come. Cavendish and Lefevere have yet to confirm the Manxman’s future, and Bennett is on the move. So far, only returning hope Fabio Jakobsen is certain of a ride on the back of the Mørkøv moto.
But despite his finishing speed, Mørkøv has no designs on sprinting for himself.
Ironically, the day that Cavendish drew level with Eddy Merckx’s stage win record was also the day Mørkøv clocked his first-ever trip to the Tour podium with his second-place finish.
Mørkøv said he doesn’t care that he’s never the one fully in the limelight. But maybe one day his own chance will come, whether by accident or design.
“No, I didn’t brake,” he joked after finishing a half-length behind his leader Friday.