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Rod Ellingworth believes that Mark Cavendish is as relevant as ever and still has what it takes to win. However, even one of the Manxster’s most trusted confidantes says at what level, and at what races, remains to be seen.
Cavendish has battled through a long winless spell, battling mental and physical illness and a plague of doubts from both inside and outside his team. The latest jab came last month when reports emerged that Cavendish, who has 30 Tour de France stage wins in his palmarès, was likely to be left out of the Bahrain-McLaren lineup for this summer’s Grande Boucle. The Manxman was quick to react, branding the article clickbait.
Ellingworth, who has worked with Cavendish throughout the sprinter’s prolific career, asserted to VeloNews last week that the Tour is not out of the question for the 35-year-old, and that high-level victories are still within his grasp. However, with all focus on a yellow jersey challenge with Spanish team leader Mikel Landa, it’s far from certain, and with Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli also vying for selection, Cavendish won’t be walking into any sprinter slot that comes up.
“We’ve got 29 bike riders, all 29 are capable of going to the Tour de France if they’re good enough,” Ellingworth told VeloNews. “Nobody’s been selected yet, not Mark, not Sonny, it’s in general across the team. Obviously, we’ve got our main objective, and that’s that we think Mikel can win the Tour. If along the way we think there’s a potential other objective we can go for, we’ll see what happens.”
Last month’s reports had suggested that Cavendish’s chances of making a 13th-career Tour start this summer had been dented by the inability to prove a return to form through race results. But as Ellingworth points out, since coronavirus put the brakes on all racing since March, the whole team is in the same boat.
“For every single one of them it’s difficult when there’s no racing,” he said. “But there are races, and they’re all going to race beforehand. And there’s all the training data and all the normal sort of coaching tools that you’d use in terms of condition. And it not just racing, where you’re going to select people from, there’s their mindset, there’s their contribution to the team and the dynamics of the team.”
After roaring to victory in 30 Tour stages, a world championship title, and Milano-Sanremo success in a career-defining eight-year-spell from 2008 through 2016, Cavendish’s stuttered during his later years with Team Dimension Data. The last time the Manxman took the top step of the podium was at February 2018’s Dubai Tour, shortly before he suffered a spring blighted by heavy crashes and broken bones.
Having gotten back in the saddle later that year, Cavendish was then sidelined through to 2019 with Epstein-Barr virus. And just when he got the wheels turning this winter with appearances at the Saudi and UAE Tours, the next obstacle came into view – the season-stopping coronavirus pandemic.
“When you think about his career now for three years… it’s not been easy,” Ellingworth said. “The third year now on the trot, something completely out of his hands has knocked him. But he was making brilliant progress [before the coronavirus shutdown].
“He didn’t win in Saudi Arabia or UAE. But Saudi, the guy rode super, super well,” he continued. “There’s no reason to say he can’t be winning at the top again.”
“He’s got so much to offer within the team in terms of just the ambition and the drive. And I always believe that if you’ve got that ambition and drive, if everything falls right, there’s no reason why you can’t win still. As I’ve said before, at what level who knows, because I think that’s the big question. But the first thing is to just get out and win bike races again.”
Whether Cavendish returns to winning ways or not, either on the Champs-Élysées or a lower-profile finish line, remains to be seen. However, Ellingworth insists the Manxman consistently adds value to the team through his weight of experience and personality. The transition toward a mentoring role, imparting the weight of knowledge amassed through a 15-year, 146-win career, was one that Cavendish himself spoke of earlier this year and echoes sprint rival André Greipel’s talismanic role at Israel Start-Up Nation.
“People don’t see the conversations in the team, and his conversation in the room pre-race with the guys is phenomenal,” Ellingworth said. “I mean, if you spoke to Phil Bauhaus at Saudi Tour [ed – the German sprinter who took two stage wins at the race] he’d be like, ‘it was a brilliant experience.’ Cav brought so much to the team and you know, Cav has been a prolific winner and he’s got so much to offer within the team in terms of just the ambition and the drive.”
For Ellingworth, the “Manx Missile” is still as potent as ever. Whether that manifests in the spotlight of a Tour de France podium or behind the scenes in talks on the team bus is another matter.