Cavendish wins stage 10 as Morkov, background, celebrates
There is a picture of Mark Cavendish, tweeted in February 2019, showing him training in Mallorca. He is smiling alongside Michael Morkov, the three-time Danish road race champion widely considered the best lead-out man in the business: if you want to win cycling’s biggest sprint stages, get on Morkov’s high-speed train and throw yourself out at the finish.
The interesting thing is that they were on different teams back then: Cavendish was still riding for Team Dimension Data trying to recover his form and his health after a long spell sidelined with Epstein-Barr virus. He travelled to Mallorca to train and discuss tactics with the best in the world in the hope of finding his racing touch – something most thought was long gone. But two and a half years later he is on Morkov’s train at Team Deceuninck-QuickStep, and it is their teamwork which has brought Cavendish to the verge of Eddy Merckx’s famous record of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France.
Cavendish and Morkov, both 36, are deep thinkers. They spend their evenings studying the road book and forensically examining Google Maps to understand the next day’s route. In particular, they dissect the final kilometre: the road’s undulations, the surface, every twist and turn right down to the optimum angle to enter the final corner. Cavendish embeds it all in his memory: ask him about the final throes of a stage he won 10 years ago and he can recite every pedal stroke.
For all their planning, the reality is that sprinting is usually an unpredictable business, boiling down to split-second decisions made in a vortex at 50mph. As Cavendish told The Independent in an interview in 2019: “You can only pre-plan stuff to a certain degree because there are so many variables – road conditions, weather, mechanicals. You have an idea of whose wheel you want to be on, you know that realistically the odds are team X will do this or that, so you think that’s the most likely thing and you plan for it. But it doesn’t always work out.”
Here, though, their plans have unfolded to perfection. “I remember buying cycling magazines when I was younger and you could find articles on the art of sprinting, and this was what we had today,” Cavendish said after winning stage 10 last week, bringing up win No 33. “An old school, textbook lead-out, like you read in the magazines.”
With each carefully choreographed win, Cavendish has made a point to credit his team, and rightly so. Leadership is a funny thing in cycling, not so much requiring an inspirational figurehead but more like a queen bee, to be protected at all costs. It is the road captain who makes hard decisions, the domestiques who sacrifice. Most of the time the leader’s job is not really to lead at all in any meaningful sense, but to do as little as possible until they reach the mountains, or the home straight in a sprinter’s case.
“I’m so humbled by my teammates’ sublime effort and the lead-out train they provided to me,” Cavendish added, before carefully name-checking each of them. ‘They all left everything on the road for me. I just had to finish it off. I didn’t really do anything.”
That is not true, of course. Cavendish has rebuilt his own strength over the cold months. He is the one with pistons for thighs, as well as every sprinter’s essential dose of insanity to be willing to ride hip to hip at 50mph, to attack a minuscule gap knowing full well the pain awaiting should an open door slam shut. Most importantly, Cavendish has a unique instinct to visualise those gaps before they appear, to surf wheels and judge exactly the right moment to explode into clear air.
“You can believe or you can doubt yourself,” he explained. “It’s the difference between being one metre late that you’re gonna launch for a gap, then it’s three seconds later and you’re sat on the wheel and you’re about to lose. It’s about having confidence in the decisions you’re making – having confidence in yourself has an impact on the decisions you’re making.”
The pressure is immense. Sprinters live on the sharp edges of cycling, on millimetres and milliseconds, and over three gruelling weeks of the Tour de France the bulk of their work can be distilled down to a few key moments leading into a few flat finishes: win a stage by an inch and the Tour is deemed a success; lose and they have failed.
But it is also true that in a sport which blends individualism with teamwork, Cavendish has plenty to be grateful for. He was right that these victories have been almost textbook. His racing instincts have been on display only in brief glimpses, with Cavendish rarely having to skip from wheel to wheel like stepping stones to the line. Instead he has been ridden to the finish in a limousine, with Morkov and his team of bodyguards blocking the road, scuppering rivals so effectively that Morkov himself has twice finished second almost by accident.
Morkov and Cavendish celebrate after winning stage 4
Morkov’s brief is all-encompassing: to know the moments to accelerate, to be aerodynamic, to listen to his gut telling him when and where to push and pull the peloton; to adjust in a headwind, to lean on rivals and exploit their exertions, to free his sprinter when he’s boxed in. “There are many things that can fuck up a lead-out,” Morkov once said. “A big part of the sprint is to analyse what the other teams are doing, play on them and play on their mistakes. We are really carefully watching the other teams and then we take the opportunities that we get.”
And it is not just in the sprints that the team have played their role. Most telling was their reaction to surviving stage 11, a brutal double climb up Mont Ventoux. As a bedraggled Cavendish crossed the line just inside the time cut, the three teammates who had shielded him from the wind along the way – Morkov, Davide Ballerini and Tim Declerq – bumped fists and patted backs like they’d won another stage.
Winning 35 stages of the Tour de France shouldn’t even be a thing – Cavendish’s predominant rival over the years, Andre Greipel, won only 11. Should he clinch victory today, or on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday, it will be one of the greatest individual feats in the history of British sport, a triumph of one man’s genius and his indestructible perseverance. But it will also be a symbol of teamwork and sacrifice, of what can be achieved when great minds and great talents coalesce.
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