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Mark Cavendish returned to the top step of a stage-winner’s podium on Monday, a lofty height he’d grown unaccustomed to.
The Manxman took his first win since February 2018 with a slaloming sprint at the Tour of Turkey’s second stage, allaying an increasing tide of doubt that the Manxman was past it and tugging on the heartstrings of even the most staunch of skeptics.
After spending the past 38 months burdened with illness, misfiring form and the lost confidence of former teams, the 35-year-old dived between old foe André Greipel and on-form fastman Jasper Philipsen to take the champagne in Turkey.
It was no Champs-Elysees or world championship sprint, but Cavendish’s victory on the frozen streets of Turkey could have been one of the most important of his long and illustrious career.
“It’s incredible, it’s super nice and I never get tired of this feeling,” he said after the stage. “Philipsen jumped early and had a small gap, but I had enough to make up ground and I must say I was quite surprised at how quickly I came in the final meters of the stage.”
After a dire season at Bahrain-McLaren in 2020, Cavendish returned to his former team Deceuninck-Quick-Step this season with a transfer that had the sniff of sympathy vote.
Cavendish boasted a long and warm relationship with team boss Patrick Lefevere after his former three-year spell under the Belgian’s watch. The Manxman bought his own sponsors to finance the move and the accompanying good vibes brought Quick-Step into the headlines. With the team packing a full stable of talented young sprinters, Lefevere had one of the greatest sprinter’s of an era to play mentor and talisman.
Few expected much from the 35-year-old.
Yet in just his third race with “The Wolfpack,” Cavendish took second place at the GP Jean Pierre-Monseré. Two podium places and a spell in the leader’s jersey at the Coppi e Bartali proved the result was no fluke. And then a third-place at Scheldeprijs, a race he’s won three times, the last of which was 10 years ago, underscored that maybe – just maybe – “Cav” could go all the way. He finally did Monday with a sprint that wasn’t the product of luck or the misfortune of others, but the assured timing and daring diving that banked him his huge trophy cabinet.
“I want to thank Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Patrick for giving me this opportunity,” Cavendish said Monday. “Patrick believed in me and I am so lucky to be here in this special team, in this family. Some people didn’t think I could get back to winning, but he did and for that I am grateful,”
The 2.Pro Tour of Turkey was hardly the most prestigious backdrop for Cavendish’s 147th career win, given his haul of 30 Tour de France stages, a monument and a rainbow jersey. Yet it could prove just as important as any one of them. Cavendish has just one year on his contract with Quick-Step, and Monday’s victory far from guarantees him further time with Lefevere and Co. But what it does mean, is that if 2021 proves his final year in the pro peloton, he can end it with a hint of optimism.
“Just to get back to winning after what I’ve been through in the last couple of years is truly incredible,” he said.
A win’s a win, and Cavendish has many. But none will have tasted so sweet.