Mark Cavendish has been beaten in a sprint, not once, but twice within the space of 48 hours. The press pack descends, sniffing a story. Is the 20-year-old Colombian Fernando Gaviria the next big thing? More importantly, is the 29-year-old Manxman over the hill?
Gaviria’s stunning jump and leg speed exhibited at the Tour de San Luis left Cavendish several lengths adrift on both occasions, but the Etixx-QuickStep train and its leader got the measure of their man by the final stage to record the 120th professional victory for Britain’s most prolific winner. Gaviria goes early. Cavendish simply went earlier.
Third time lucky: Cavendish edges out Gaviria (right)
Was he bothered by the losses, we wondered? Smarting just a tad? Hungry as ever? “You know me,” he says. “I don’t think it is possible to get hungrier than I am. I always want to win.”
Plus, lest we forget, it’s frightfully early in the season to be going full steam. Gaviria’s speed comes off the back of winning the Omnium in December’s track World Cup in London, with the upcoming World Championships firmly in his sights. Cavendish, meanwhile, builds steadily towards the first big target of the year: Milan-Sanremo.
“I’m happy with where I am in January, but I say that every January,” he says, and it’s easy to believe those very same words being trotted out annually for the best part of a decade. But then he does get asked the very same question. What’s a boy to do?
With the finish in Sanremo returning once more to Via Roma, the scene of Cavendish’s desperately close win over Heinrich Haussler in 2009, La Primavera again becomes a realistic target. “It’s the Sanremo I dreamed of racing as a kid,” he remembers, “the one I said I was going to win when I was older.”
And so he did, although he was not much more than a kid at the time. At 23, he became the youngest winner of the season-opening Classic since Eddy Merckx in 1966. The podium photos from ’09 reveal a chubby-cheeked boy racer who most had written off ever being in contention on Via Roma. The boy racer had the last laugh.
If anything, he is better placed now than then. Six years back, Cavendish spent the climbs of Tirreno-Adriatico riding well within himself, bluffing his rivals into thinking that the following week’s Sanremo was beyond his capabilities. The Mark Two model may not be at quite the same level of explosive power, “but I can climb with a group of 50 now, which I couldn’t when I was younger.”
Still dreaming of Sanremo
He also had a blast riding the track over the winter, ending the Ghent Six in second spot with Etixx-QuickStep team-mate Iljo Keisse. “I have always gone to Ghent previously not in good shape and suffered, so to go and compete for the win was something I had dreamed of. It makes me want to go back and do it again.”
With team boss Patrick Lefevere less than enthusiastic about the prospect – more for reasons of maintaining fitness than likelihood of crashing, he claims – a return to the boards next winter remains in the balance. As Cavendish tells us: “If I go shit this year, then it’s probably not a good thing!”
It’s almost time for our interviewee to hit the baking streets of San Luis and return to the fray. My Belgian colleague wonders if the Brit is content to remain on a Belgian team for the foreseeable future.
“I am on contract year for the first time in my career, really,” Cavendish replies. “I want to stay here, so I want to do well for team this year. I love it. It’s the same felling I had after a couple of years at HTC when it became family. That’s how I feel. You never want to go away from home, but it is a pleasure to be away from home with these riders and staff.”
All well and good, my Belgian friend counters, but you’re British. Wouldn’t you prefer a British team?
“But Etixx-QuickStep is a racing team and I am a racer,” Cav fires back.
Hold on a minute, I chip in. If you were a footballer of equal status – a world superstar, in other words – you’d be agitating for a move; playing the field a bit.
“Maybe in the past I would have played that card, but I’m so happy. I made that mistake once before…”
Now, what could he be referring to there?