Tour de France dominance and world titles, tantrums and tears: Mark Cavendish’s highlights reel

Cavendish was the defining sprinter of the century – Our editors pick through their best memories of the retiring 'Manx Missile'.

Photo: James Startt

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Mark Cavendish.

Cav. The Manx Missile. The Manxman.

Cavendish needs little introduction. He dominated the bunch sprints and velodrome boards of the 21st century.

The retiring super sprinter amassed a blockbuster road palmarès headlined by an Eddy Merckx-equalling 34 Tour de France stage wins and victories at the world championships and Milan-San Remo.

And his multiple-world-title track career wasn’t so bad either.

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But Cavendish isn’t only defined by his low-slung bullet-shaped sprint. The now-38-year-old wears his heart on his sleeve and brings pro cycling’s sharpest tongue to his press conferences.

“Cav” confirmed this week the 2023 season would be his last. To honor his glittering 18-year career, our editors pick through their best Mark Cavendish memories.

Andrew Hood: Oh-so-close Milano-Sanremo

Cavendish celebrates a stunning victory at Milan-San Remo. (Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

Watching Cavendish race and win was always a guarantee of a good finish-line quote. Those reactions were often more controversial when he didn’t win, but Cavendish always wore his heart on his sleeve.

Cavendish made a point of beating every real or perceived rival, and then rubbing it in their face. André Greipel and Tyler Farrar were early usurpers to his sprinter throne who needed to be reminded who was boss.

If there was any doubt about a new sheriff in town was the story of Cavendish riding with one leg out of the pedal as he rode past the aging Mario Cipollini at the Tour of California.

Cavendish’s best win came in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, the only edition he won and the only monument that made it onto his 160-plus-win palmarès.

Cavendish was the big favorite that year for the sprinter’s classic, and he barely managed to make it over the Poggio with the leaders. Heinrich Haussler launched an early sprint, and it looked like the German-Australian was going to win.

Cavendish found an incredible turn of speed to burst out of the chasing bunch and catch him at the line with a superb bike through. Haussler was crushed by the experience, and Cavendish exploded with joy at the line.

The new era was born, and Cavendish would ride the wave of adulation and exultation for the better part of the next decade.

Sadhbh O’Shea: First green jersey, hitting back at haters

Mark Cavendish shows his displeasure with his doubters at the Tour de Romandie
Mark Cavendish shows his displeasure with his doubters at the Tour de Romandie (Photo: Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images)

Mark Cavendish has plenty of memorable moments to choose from, probably more than most, but the one for me is the year that he claimed his first Tour de France green jersey. By that stage, he had already wrapped up points classification victories at the Vuelta a España the year before and had twice finished second in the competition at the Tour in the two years prior.

Cavendish stormed to five stage wins — bringing his career total to 16 — but taking green was not straightforward with Jose Joaquin Rojas pushing him almost the whole way. Things got spicy in the final mountain stages with Cavendish missing the time cut on the summit finish on the Galibier. Fortunately for the Manxman, about half the peloton was in the same group and he was allowed to start the next day, but he had 20 points docked from his total.

Rojas had already seen points stripped from his tally earlier in the race when he was deemed to have blocked Cavendish in the sprint on stage 5. Nevertheless, the loss of 20 points saw Rojas move to just 15 behind Cavendish with just one stage to go. Ultimately, there was little for Cavendish to worry about as he stormed to victory on the Champs Élysées with Rojas getting nowhere close.

Not all Cavendish memories are good ones, and he had another very memorable moment in 2011 when he made an obscene gesture after winning a stage of the Tour de Romandie. He stuck two fingers up to people who he said “know jack s**t about cycling” and subsequently pulled out of the race. Cavendish’s temper would flare up a few times in his career, but this was one of the most memorable examples of it.

Jim Cotton: Birthday triumph, Gent-Wevelgem tears

Cavendish’s 2015 Tour de France victory in Fougeres isn’t his greatest, but it was on Jim’s birthday, so … (Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Cavendish’s stage 7 victory at the 2015 Tour de France wasn’t his “best,” his most high-profile, or his most historic. But it was a highlight of my day celebrating my 30th birthday, and a moment forever etched into my mind.

That summer, I was living in London and deep in the local road and single-speed scenes.

And at the time, “Cav-mania” was lighting up the bike community. After he’d crashed out of the Tour’s Yorkshire départ the year before, the “Missile” started the 2015 season red-hot and was on a mission to score what was then his 26th stage win.

From memory, stage 7 of 2015 was pretty much a boilerplate flat stage of “breakaway-wait-catch-sprint.”

But I was watching it celebrating my birthday with friends in the sunny yard of my local bike café, beer in hand and lovin’ life.

I’d grown up very much revering Cavendish. He’s only six weeks older than me, and alongside Bradley Wiggins, he led the bike-mania that was partly to blame for my deep dive into the world of racing.

So to see Cavendish beating top-dog rivals André Greipel and Peter Sagan, on my birthday, felt like the Manx’s own little present to me. 

And just a little extra memory is when Cavendish broke down in tears in the mixed zone at the 2020 Gent-Wevelgem out of fear he might have just raced for the last time.

Cavendish was brittle and prickly at times, but that also meant he was brutally honest and very human. I think that’s what elevated him to a different echelon of sporting celebrity.

Will Tracy: Tour de France, from confirmation to redemption

A return to the Tour podium in 2021 capped a remarkable comeback for Cavendish. (Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Stage 21 of the 2009 Tour

It was the icing on the cake in the most dominant Tour de France of Mark Cavendish’s career. Win number six of the Tour came on the sport’s biggest stage for sprinters: The Champs Élysées in Paris.

What happened that day stands as a testament not only to Cavendish’s sprinting prowess at its peak but the dominance of his Columbia-HTC team’s sprint train and specifically how in tune he was with leadout man Mark Renshaw.

The teamwork leading up to the finish was phenomenal, with the team taking to the front and controlling the pace through the eight laps around the Arc de Triomphe. Come the final lap all that was left to do was send the Marks darting through the last turn, opening up a dominant sprint where not a single other rider was close enough to make it into the panning camera shot running alongside the duo. Renshaw even had time to sit up and raise his arms in celebration while cruising to second place.

Paul Sherwen’s comment on the live TV broadcast sums it up succinctly: “I don’t think we need a photo for that one, because there was nobody else in the photo. That was almost a last-minute solo attack!”

Redemption at the 2021 Tour

Cavendish wasn’t supposed to be in the 2021 Tour de France.

Hell, he was nearly forced into retirement before that season even got underway, only securing a contract with Deceuninck Quick-Step by having his salary covered by a team sponsor.

But after teammate Sam Bennett, the reigning points jersey winner at the Tour, dropped out with a knee injury in the days leading up to the Tour, the Manxman got the nod.

Heading into the race with 30 career Tour stage wins, another victory was not out of the question for Cav, but at the same time certainly, no one would have been surprised if the then 36-year-old left without a stage win at all — it had been five years since the last one after all.

Then on stage 4, everything came together and Cavendish once more was a Tour de France stage winner.

Overnight, Cavendish winning went from surprising to once more feeling inevitable.

The following three weeks became a storybook Tour, with wins number 32, 33, and 34 falling into place to equal the all-time record set by Merckx.

But none would match the emotional intensity of number 31.

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