Alasdair Fotheringham: France still in love with Cavendish, even if their best sprinter is not

Tour de France

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The Independent Online

It's clear from Romain Feillu's comments a couple of days ago about Mark Cavendish – "always saying he's the best and practising psychological warfare" – as well as Cavendish's riposte – "he's a kamikaze" – that there is little love lost between France's top sprinter and the world's fastest man.

But is the Feillu-Cav spat an indication that the Cav-France relationship has hit a low point? Far from it.

Cavendish's outspoken, larger-than-life personality and tendency to speak from his heart, not to mention his impressive success rate, seem to have struck a chord with the French.

"He's a bit a of a kid, but that's why we like him," Reuters' (French) head of cycling Julien Pretot says. "OK, he can brag and that can get on your nerves, but you have to acknowledge his talent.

"At the moment he's the only real star that cycling has. He's appreciated."

Such appreciation is definitely not always automatic for the sport's champions: think Lance Armstrong, greeted by spectators dressed as giant needles on the slopes of the Alps in his twilight years, or Eddy Merckx, punched in the kidneys by a fan, or the three-times King of the Mountains, Julio Jimenez, who once got a metal bucket of water thrown at him on a climb ("the water missed me," Jimenez once told me in his inimitably laconic tone, "but the bucket didn't.")

There are no such worries for Cavendish. To judge by the amount of fan mail Cavendish receives at the Tour's mobile post office, he's neither particularly loved or hated.

"Last year Mark was in the top five for getting fan mail [electronic or otherwise] but he wasn't the least popular by a long way," the man in charge of the van that distributes the mail says. "He was somewhere in the middle."

The French definitely like his sentimental side ("Cavendish's tears" was L'Equipe's headline when he cried after winning his first stage last year), even if they tend to get a shade sarcastic with him ("Cavendish feels he is blameless" was their line yesterday after his verbals with Feillu) and are puzzled by the way the strange words "Fook" and "Fookin'" pepper his press conferences.

But in any case, this is nowhere near the scale of the anti-Armstrong feelings at their worst – or indeed the boos that a certain Spaniard got at the Tour de France presentation last week.

Perhaps the idea of a possible Cav-France split all dates back to the 2009 Tour when an anonymous French rider accused Cavendish of allegedly complaining about "Fookin' Frenchies."

Cavendish flatly denied any such comment, then came out with the lines: "I'm a bit hot-headed at times and I am an asshole, but it's irrelevant the nationality of the rider if I'm going to get arsey with someone," he said.

Diplomatic it wasn't, but any potential problem receded after that riposte. And there's no sign of any tension returning.