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Douglas Ryder’s face melted from a smile to an expression of extreme fatigue—call it exhaustion—when I brought up Mark Cavendish.
It was a sweltering afternoon at last year’s Tour de France, and Ryder and I stood outside the Team Dimension Data bus, high on an Alpine mountainside. Earlier in the year we had sat down for a lengthy interview about African cycling. It was a topic that Ryder—Dimension Data’s founder and principal—had immense passion for, and as we stood there at the bus, he told more anecdotes about his successes and failures with African riders over the years.
And then, I asked about Cav, and the fire and excitement in Ryder’s voice fizzled. Just a few days before, Cavendish had missed the time cut on the Tour’s 11th stage. He exited the Tour without coming remotely close to winning a sprint. For 10 straight days, reporters had peppered Ryder and Dimension Data’s directors with questions about the star sprinter.
What’s wrong with Cav? Did they expect him to win? Had Cav’s sprint train done its work?
Now, here I was, asking about the same topic.
Ryder is a professional, and he provided diplomatic answers. Everyone on the team had confidence in Cavendish, he said, and team trainers would assess his physical condition. The team riders would now hunt stage victories.
So, what was wrong with Cav? Ryder didn’t know. Onto the next question.
I bring this anecdote up today, because Ryder and Dimension Data are at the center of the Tour de France’s first polemica, and it is focused squarely on the team’s decision to leave Cavendish at home for the 2019 Tour de France. Cavendish was gracious after the snub, and took to social media to tell his fans that his training numbers indicated he was on form to race the Tour. A recent report suggests that team director Rolf Aldag wanted to bring Cavendish, while Ryder did not. In the end, Ryder won.
As a journalist and fan of the sport, I think Douglas Ryder made the right decision to leave Cavendish at home this year.
Cavendish is a bonafide star, and one of the highest profile racers in the WorldTour peloton. Wherever he goes, he brings attention, crowds, and throngs of journalists. At the Tour, Cav’s quest to win four more stages and equal Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage victories is an annual storyline to follow.
But this attention cuts both ways. It’s all good when Cavendish wins or comes close to winning. But when Cavendish is a dud and finishes well off the pace, the entire storyline surrounding the team changes to one central question: What’s wrong with Cav?
Since 2017, this storyline has engulfed Team Dimension Data. It swallowed the team at the 2018 Tour de France and throughout the early part of 2019. I saw Dimension Data at the UAE Tour and the Amgen Tour of California, where Cavendish was well off the pace in the sprints. The questions followed the team at both of those races. And in the last months, there was no indication that Cavendish had made any real strides in the sprints. His results at the Tour of Slovenia and the British national road championships pointed at mediocre form.
Thus, Ryder and Dimension Data were looking at the very real possibility of having “What’s wrong with Mark Cavendish” again be the team’s unofficial slogan at the Tour de France.
Here’s the thing: That slogan does little to advance the team’s actual stated mission, which I’ve included below:
Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka races for something bigger than wins. We ride to help people in Africa to move forward with bicycles through our relationship with Qhubeka Charity. See below to understand how bicycles change lives. You can help us impact more lives by making a donation to Qhubeka.
Yep, Dimension Data is promoting hope, changing lives with the bicycle, something bigger than victories. I’m no marketing executive, but the team’s message of raising money for an African charity is somewhat lost when the Cavendish question demands all of the oxygen in the room.
Instead of Cavendish, Dimension Data has built its squad around breakaway specialists Steve Cummings, Ben King, and Roman Kreuziger. Are these men guaranteed to win? No, of course not. Do they have a better chance at winning than Mark Cavendish? That’s anybody’s guess, really.
But these breakaway riders are likely to ride into long early moves, and factor into those dramatic will-he-or-won’t-he chases that get fans to stand up and yell at their televisions.
Cheering for Ben King to win from a breakaway brings on sentiments of hope. Watching Cav cross the line in 48th place on a pan-flat stage does not. And for Dimension Data, which has one of the smaller budgets in the WorldTour, inspiring hope is an attainable goal at this year’s Tour de France.
I like Mark Cavendish, and the manner in which he has discussed his setbacks transformed me into a fan. I feel immense sympathy for him and his attempt to overcome the Epstein Barr virus, which is supposedly the root of his bad form over these two years.
There are those who have tweeted at me that Cavendish needs to hang it up and retire. I disagree with that sentiment entirely. I actively cheer for Cavendish to find his winning form again. I’d love to see him stand atop a Tour de France podium one more time.
But Cav’s 2019 dismal results are strong hints that he has yet to regain his winning form. And Dimension Data do not need another year of Cavendish questions. The team needs a new story to tell
They will undoubtedly learn that a Tour de France without Mark Cavendish is still the Tour de France.