Writing History

There’s something comforting about the the Tour de France. Every year the same rituals and routines, whether pre-race previews, the familiar stage towns, the peloton riding past sunflowers… and Mark Cavendish winning stages.

Cavendish got his 34th stage win and equals the record set by Eddy Merckx. Comparisons with Merckx arise because they’re level on stage wins but there’s not much to compare, they are very different riders competing in their own eras. Put frankly Merckx won his 34 stages on the way to a lot more.

But Cavendish as the best sprinter of all time. It’s a subjective exercise although given Cavendish has also win Milan-Sanremo, the Worlds, stages in the Giro and Vuelta to make 155 pro wins, plus the surprise longevity of his career make him an obvious pick. Proximity can be a bias, see the way the “greatest songs of all time” always include a sprinkling of contempory hits that won’t stand the test of time when the same poll is done five years later. But Cavendish isn’t just impressing today, we can remember his older hits too. There’d be no argument here if forced to pick “the best sprinter” but each rider is a product of their era.

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André Darrigade, the Hare of the Landes, won 22 stages of the Tour de France and two green jerseys, two in the Giro and was world champion in 1959. All this in an era when bunch sprints were more rare, there were more openings for attackers, indeed he took some wins solo too. Today Darrigade runs a bookshop in the seaside town of Biarritz and when the Tour visits France’s south western corner he’s often a podium guest to greet the day’s winner.

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Freddy Maertens was more than sprinter but won plenty of sprints. As Wikipedia will tell you, between the 1976 Tour and 1977 Giro, Maertens won 28 out of 60 Grand Tour stages, including 13 in one Vuelta on his way to winning it overall. He won the worlds and the green jersey competition three times plus a stack of classics.

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Mario Cipollini was the best in the early 1990s and 2000s and a big personality to go with his prolific wins. Many teams had used sprint trains before but Cipollini and his Saeco team perfected it. Cipollini, a world champion too and Sanremo winner too, won more stages of the Giro than Tour, in part because that was what his Italian team wanted; his squad were not invited to the Tour because the organisers were frustrated with his altitude sickness, he’d flee for the beach as soon as the mountains arrived. Coming from a team time trial background his long sprints impressed, he could launch with 300 metres to go and win. But working with Michele Ferrari dented his image and revelations about his personal life have done more damage, this doesn’t affect his palmarès, just you might not see him invited to trade shows or TV studios as much.

Mark Cavendish now has 34 stage wins, a world title, the green jersey from 2011, a world championship, Sanremo and more. Arguably the only thing missing is Paris-Tours and a big Flemish classic like Gent-Wevelgem. But Paris-Tour has lost its lustre for the sprinters and Gent-Wevelgem has mimicked the other Flemish one day races by adding more climbs and cobbles to become a Ronde clone rather than the classic all the sprinters have to win. Anyway, Cavendish hasn’t stopped yet, there’s still Libourne and Paris if he can get past the Pyrenees.

All the suggestions above are light, just the headline wins and they’re deliberately served up to avoid making conclusive comparisons. There’s little point trying to parse a palmarès and compare win counts, the quality, the manner of the wins and more. It could be a fun way to spend a winter evening but it’ll always be subjective: invent a ranking and it’ll probably tell us more about the person doing the ranking than the sprinters.

Even comparing Cavendish isn’t easy, his stage win today comes 13 years to the day when he won his first stage. Could the “Cav” of today beat the Cav of old? Probably because sprinting has got faster, riders frequently use 54T or 55T chainrings, bikes, wheels, clothing and helmets are more aerodynamic. Perhaps if we could put today’s Cavendish on his old Columbia team-issue Giant from 2008 then the younger version would win. But by now we’re going down rabbit holes and and imaginary software simulations.

Cavendish winning today is a fascinating story of survivorship bias with so many rival sprinters falling by the way. Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen’s comebacks need more time, Fernando Gaviria’s faded, Caleb Ewan’s crash took him out, Tim Merlier’s yet to finish an Alpine stage race, Mathieu van der Poel’s left to focus on the postponed Olympics, Arnaud Démare missed the time cut. Plus Sam Bennett banged his knee setting off the chain of events that put him out of the Tour… and in came Cavendish to a Tour with a route to suit as well. He can only beat who is in front of him but it’s this longevity that impresses, that he is still around to pop up for these wins aged 36. Besides today nobody goes “ah but Darrigade didn’t have to face Jean Graczyk or Pierrino Baffino in the 1950-something Tour” or “Merckx would have had 35 if he didn’t puncture that day”. History records the winners.

53 thoughts on “Writing History”

  1. in my opinion, the cavendish story has really become the center of the tour—the overall is pretty inflexible, climbers jersey an after thought.

    but cavendish coming from an almost forced retirement after years of set back and a last minute call up, to win now four stages along with the green jersey and have the opportunity to set a new win record, all at the twilight of his career.

    that is a fairy tale ending for one of the best riders of his generation.

  2. A nice summary both of Cavendish’s palmares and those of some of the other claimants to the “best sprinter ever” tag.

    I was in the Maertens camp for a long time, partly to be contrary, partly because I generally think you need some historical distance to really be able to place things into context. What tips me over the edge towards Cavendish now though is the longevity that you mention. He’s beaten the sprinters that fell by the wayside in this tour before on occasion, just as he beat the previous generation in their prime, and beat the generation before that in their prime, and the generation before that at the end of their careers and the start of his.

    A list of sprinters who have finished second to Cavendish in races over the years would be a definitive who’s who of anyone who sprinted in the 21st century, and several of them were cyclists of the very greatest quality.

    • One more thought. Another way of phrasing the “greatest” question is “who is the sprinter you compare other sprinters to?”, and there’s really only one answer to that right now.

        • The reference point is the undoubted greatest cyclist of all time and the fact that Cavendish has equalled his Tour wins total, in the greatest race, is enough in itself though?
          Is any other consideration secondary to this?
          (I suspect Cav may have another season or two to go yet; he seems so happy just to be even riding again).

  3. No mention of “King” Kelly?

    Mark Cavendish’s story is all the better because of his personality. He might not be as brash as his young self but he wears his heart on his sleeve just as much. The contrast to the misery of the ride around an anonymous grey & damp Belgian town last autumn to the joy of summer in the Tour is just unmeasurable and unbelievable.

    For me the most impressive part has not been the sprint wins, where the opposition has been a bit thin, but his riding in the mountains. To finish inside the time limit on a stage like the one into Tignes you have to be a very good climber, he (aided by his team) managed when many others did not, he even outdid Chris Froome on the Grand Bornard stage. Not bad for a 36 year old who has not ridden so much as a mountainous one day race for at least a couple of years.

    And there might be more to come, the Champs Elysees awaits perhaps.

    • Also a huge chapeau to Mørkøv , who managed to go slowly enough to pass Garcia Cortina but let Cavendish pass him, and then still had the nous to throw his bike in order to take second from Philipsen in order to snaffle up more points (check his little look to his right just before he throws the bike).
      Looked like Mørkøv could well have taken the stage himself, which is a lot to give up.

        • Makes you wonder what destruction DQS could wreak with Caleb Ewan as the warhead atop the DQS missile. I’m sure he is paid more elsewhere, but if I were Caleb, I would want just one season at DQS to see what I could do!

          • Presumably the suggestion it’s that Cav will be eliminated in the mountains, so Mørkøv will be sprinting for DQS instead. Even if the first part’s true, though, there’s two problems with that. Firstly, it’s not the same stage, so won’t tell is anything about this one. And secondly, if Cav’s eliminated, it’s highly likely that Mørkøv, as his constant mountains companion, will be too.

      • +1
        Further more what impresses the most when you watch Mørkøv doing his lead outs is the sheer complexity. His ability to adapt the way he delivers his sprinter is phenomenal. In this tour we have seen him “slowing” down when needed as yesterday, giving his all from far out and leaving his sprinter on the superior train, progressively increasing speed in an extraordinary calm way and last but not least, his ability to guide his sprinter up the field during the final and intense kilometres is second to none. He is a calm cool and collected cat, and grounded too by his interviews.
        From watching yesterday it is hard to believe he doesn’t fancy his own chance, but when you listen to the interviews he has given I truly believe him when he says he doesn’t. His reward is exactly what he gets when he sees his sprinter take the win.

  4. It’ll be interesting to see if his motivation to get over the Pyrenees is there or not now.
    He looked shattered after today’s stage.
    Would you want to strike Merckx’s name from the books, as sacrilegious as that sounds, or is a record just there to be beaten regardless?

    • He isn’t alone in respect of tired legs…There are a lot of them left in the peloton. That means that the Grupetto will become larger and slower…Less chance of an OTL, but if there is then they won’t throw out a group of 50+ riders.

  5. “He can only beat who is in front of him but it’s this longevity that impresses, that he is still around to pop up for these wins aged 36. ”
    No arguing there – the Manx Missile has that covered! I wrote him off a few months ago but Lefevere had the cojones to bring him to LeTour and proved me (and lots of others) very, very wrong.
    I hope he can make it over the Pyrenees and cap things off with a win on the Champs.
    He owes a lot to the various members of his sprint trains over the years and at least for now he’s happy to acknowledge this…something I hope he remembers once he hangs up the wheels and perhaps something that Sam Bennett has already forgotten?

  6. I never really warmed to Cavendish before, but this Tour has made me a fan.

    I recall him being obnoxious and arrogant in the past; perhaps I’m wrong. But is this effusive generosity toward his team something new? Did his recent, years-long travails mellow him and give him perspective? His kid?

    In any case, I’m hooked and will look at the results table each day to make sure he’s made the time cut. The spring in Paris is really something to look forward to. And I hope he wins the green–then we can have a child win yellow and a pensioner win green.

    As for Morkov: he should become a human asterisk: they should simply put a little superscript “M” next to all of the sprint wins he has enabled, or give a new stat category for most sprint wins led out.

  7. I think covid will change sport for a few years, maybe forever. Not because of the protocols, but because of those, who had covid and change through that.

    We know by now, that „long covid“ (like it is with viral infections) needs long rest and rest as in : walk 5 minutes a day, if at all. And it is totally unclear, if the ill people will get back to their old self ever again.

    We know by now, that covid changes the form of the red blood cells, which is why people get thrombosis etc. with covid, because the blood cells simply do not fit as smoothly through the venes etc. and there is no way to know, if this will be forever this way and what this will mean especially for people, who are professional athletes and do really bad things to their body and their blood, venes etc, when they go in the red and push their body to the extreme every day.

    These are just two ways in which a covid infection can change the life of a person (and I wonˋt be surprised if in the coming years studies find, that endurance athletes are more susceptible to long covid. What they do is not healthy and their bodies run so close to the edge). If you listen to people, who have long covid, even those, who have it in a milder form, they all say, that they are not the same person, that they lost their old life in the sense, that they can do nothing but exist. Many were super active before getting covid and go from a full time job, from running or cycling every day to not being able to brush their hair.

    Why I came to think of this is Gaviria. And Peter Sagan. And the countless of athletes, who were asymptomatic or only thought they had a little cold and then get really ill a few weeks after getting over that without in the beginning being aware, that they have long covid (because you can have a bad case of long covid, even if the initial infection was totally mild).

    I think this will play out over the coming years in various sports, where athletes will lose their abilities, because they have covid. And so the (useless) question, who is the best in something, can be even less answered, because some people might lose their whole ability from one day to the other or retain only 30% of their abilities, because of long covid.

    • or one might be struck by some other illness, such as epstein barr virus like Cav had. nothing particularly special about covid.
      there are many reasons why athletes lose their peak powers, lets just celebrate those on display and most of all the ones thought to be lost and then returned for our enjoyment

      • But there is something special about COVID-19. It was a pandemic that affected a huge portion of the population, including elite athletes. And it’s long-term effects are both highly variable and often debilitating for athletic performance.

        • @KevinK. Why use the past tense. The pandemic continues with no sign of an end. Agree that Covid is different. Nowhere near enough is known about the virus currently, let alone future mutations.

  8. Never let the stroke of the ego, the mental side of a hard sport be underestimated.
    Several of the riders beaten by Cavendish have better numbers in a controlled environment, but he has that feeling of invincibility (and, sure one teammate could beat him today, but didn’t out of respect I think, and place in the team). They say the yellow jersey give you extra power, surely today the Irish sea outshone Bergerac.

    I think King Crimson 94-00 is the best band the world has ever seen, possibly only sided with 75-79 Frank Zappa. Subjective? you better believe it.
    The music-cycling comparison is a bit stretched, but a good one.

    Cav is a great cyclist, and what is easily forgotten is his track record. Too late for Tokyo? Could he be big in Japan? That is the question for me.

    All puns intended.

    • He didn’t do any of the qualifying races to be eligible for track team selection.

      If I recall correctly, he wanted to do one but was out of form at the time and British Cycling were too far down the Madison rankings to take the risk on him.

  9. Great comments great blog post and great job to both patty Lefevre, quickstep and Cav.

    There may be variables that worked in Cavs favour this year BUT he did tonnes of work this offseason to get back to as top shape as possible, make it over the mountains where many fell off the pace. Plus, it is easy to say that a club rider could win with mprkovs leadout but that is malarkey. Either you can sprint or you can’t

    • The one thing that has been notable about Cav, from the start of the season, is his ability not to lose pace or form over a long sprint….Going at 350m as he did in Belgium was an eye-opener. Never slowing his pace whilst others around wilted. The last few years he hasn’t been able to do that. Blowing up 150/200m out. He is now able to give 100% of his potential….Hard work to get to that from where he was.


  10. Cavendish can be brilliant at navigating through a disorganised bunch,forcing back onto a lost wheel, intimidation just within the limits, and switching to the best wheel. We saw that yesterday.

    As for Kelly, great, but more a Maertens than pure sprinter.

    • Isn’t that part of the point, that back in the day none of them were ‘pure’ sprinters, and none of them got a limo ride to the finish line and then just focused on the time cut in any other stage. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about the greatest sprinter of all time, unless you want to specify that you mean ‘greatest sprinter who couldn’t also win any road race that didn’t end in a bunch sprint’ (i.e., a ‘pure sprinter’?

      To me the term ‘pure sprinter’ is a signifier of a limited rider, and it seems to be a fairly recent development.

  11. A remarkable stat to illustrate Cav’s longevity is that when he won his first stage in 2008, Erik Zabel was one of the riders he beat. And in 2021, Zabel’s son is in the peloton but Cav is still winning.

    Amongst his other wins, the three Madison World Championships on the track are notable, again with a big spread in time. When Cavendish and Wiggins won in 2008, bronze medalists were Denmark – with Michael Mørkøv!

  12. The young Cav could be astonishing for speed and confidence. Think back to his 2009 Milan-San Remo win, closing the gap to late breakaway Haussler in a flash when the others, including Petacchi, Hushovd, Bennati, had accepted sprinting for second. Cavendish was the only one who wouldn’t settle for a place.

    He’s still good but without that incredible acceleration.

  13. Just…. Chapeau.

    Cav: the sprinting GOAT, and a pleasure to watch over the last 13 years. Great to see his return from first illness, then a hair’s breadth from retirement (or should that be a shoulder’s width?). As others have said, you can only beat that which is in front of you…

    Very smart move by Patrick Lefevre to bring him back to Quickstep. All Cav needs is the right team around him, and his race-craft will take care of the rest. Here’s to him making it 35 on the Champs.

    Thanks once again for the write up Inrng the cycle blog GOAT.

    • Side note about Cav’s interview yesterday when he was talking about the commissaries taking a dim view about use of the head in sprints. I wonder if Abdujaparov also thought he had narrow shoulders?

  14. I’d add a shoutout to Kittel. And I mean prime Argos/Giant/first year at Quick Step Kittel. He seemed enormous, very much more Cipo than Cav, and at times seemed utterly unbeatable, won sprints by miles (yards). And it was him after all that ended the dominance of first generation Cavendish. He has no real longevity in terms of whether he’s the best ever, but at his best, on one day, a flat stage, a big drag strip finish… he’d take some beating.
    None of that is to diminish Cavendish at all, who is a living legend.

    • Good shout on Kittel. Not, as you say, right at the top of the list but staggering in his own way and someone who might be cited as a reference point if someone similar comes along. Didn’t have the range or ability to win from awkward positions as Cavendish. Kittel highlights the mental side of the game though – when stuff wasn’t quite going his way he always seemed a bit lost, and it’s no surprise he retired fairly early. That’s no reflection on Kittel, btw, just a reminder of how resilient riders need to be.

  15. “Put frankly Merckx won his 34 stages on the way to a lot more.”
    – Would he have been able to win in 1975 had he not been rabbit punched in the liver by a spectator? ( incidentally that’s the last time a spectator at the Tour was successfully prosecuted.)
    There’s a contemporary docu film about Merckx and the never-to-be ‘sixth tour’. It shows the whole episode and even follows Merckx as he goes back from the finish to seek out the offender and have him collared by gendarmes. Sickening. But what you also get from the film is the sheer admiration for Merckx among the public, way above what riders now experience.

    Thank you for your blog INRNG. Perspective is important.

  16. How did this conversation get this far w no mention of Mark Renshaw? I would wager he led Cav to twice as many wins as Morkov did.
    Not to take anything from Morkov. The guy is a brilliant bike rider. Check his palmares on the track. Watch him in a Madison or a 6 day.
    But Renshaw did the same job for years. And did it just as well.

  17. Renshaws mentioned in an earlier comment. I was really happy when Cav got selected for this tour.
    His post race comments after his latest stage win to the press about life and possibilities were really heartfelt and inspiring- as he is. As a Brit the current crop of sportsmen we have competing now in Cav at the Tour and the England footie team in the Euros are all superb role models.
    Shame on the overgrown babies who boo them and disrespect anthems etc.

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