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Many in cycling will be breathing a sigh of relief that Mark Cavendish’s move to Astana has finally been confirmed. After weeks of speculation and intrigue the whole thing was becoming pretty torturous. Even after a grainy pap-style photo of the 37 year-old loading his bags into an Astana team car at Alicante airport appeared on social media last week, the Kazakh team would not say anything.
Perhaps they left it to the 11th hour just to delay for a few days the inevitable torrent of speculation which will now follow regarding that elusive 35th Tour de France stage which would lift Cavendish clear of Eddy Merckx and into sole ownership of the title of most successful Tour stage winner in history.
Cavendish famously hates being asked about the record. But he cannot deny that he is desperate to break it. After winning his second British national title last summer, he spoke about how beautiful it would be to win that 35th stage wearing the British champion’s jersey. “Those photos would be there forever,” he said.
Of course, Cavendish did not end up going to the Tour last year. Despite his good form, the Manxman’s then team Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl (now Soudal–Quick-Step) chose to go with Fabio Jakobsen as the lone lead sprinter, a decision they might have ended up regretting with Jakobsen taking just the one stage victory early on in Denmark.
It would have been fascinating to seen how Cavendish fared with the backing of the same leadout he so enjoyed in 2021, when after years of debilitating illness and injury he came roaring back to prominence with four stage victories and the green jersey. It remains one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time in this correspondent’s eyes.
If he is to break the record this year, Cavendish will have to beat not only the best sprinters in the world but Father Time as well. Cavendish turns 38 in May. He will also have to do it without much in the way of a recognised leadout. Astana are not a team who have traditionally focused on sprinting.
They are not set up for it. And while there is talk that Dutch sprinter Cees Bol might follow Cavendish in the coming days, Astana are already up to their maximum allotted 30 riders for the season and any move at this stage would require dropping one of their current riders, possibly to the development team.
Cavendish will no doubt be hoping they can get that one over the line. The 6ft4in Bol would provide a handy shelter from the wind in those final kilometres.
Otherwise, Cavendish will be relying on riders such as Gianni Moscon, Martin Laas and Gleb Syritsa to get him into position in the sprints.
It is a far cry from two years ago, when he enjoyed a Rolls Royce train which included then world champion Julian Alaphalippe, Davide Ballerini, and Michael Mørkøv, by common consent the best leadout man in the world.
If the last few years have taught us anything, though, it is that you do not write Cavendish off. It did not happen for him on the Champs Elysees in 2021.
One wonders whether, had he won his 35th stage that day, he would still be riding now. But he didn’t. Instead he has continued to plug away, refusing to accept the dying of the light.
Now he has found himself at Astana, a team which until a few weeks ago was presumably planning to build its season around Colombian climber Miguel Angel Lopez. Lopez’s sacking for alleged links to a doping ring – not to mention the identity of Cavendish’s new team boss Alexander Vinokourov – might make some queasy about the destination he has arrived at.
But Cavendish himself will have eyes only for one final glorious swansong. The 2023 season has become at a stroke far more interesting.