Tour de France: Cavendish puts the team first in pursuit of a golden finish
A stage win, a crash, a fifth place and a finish six minutes down and well out of the action: for World Champion Mark Cavendish, who is used to racking up Tour stage wins at a rate that has made him its fifth most prolific such performer, this has been the strangest of starts. And it promises to go on like that, too.
Cavendish is well aware that his personal options in a race where he has taken a minimum of four stages every year since 2008 – as well as the green jersey in 2011 – have been curtailed dramatically because of Bradley Wiggins's attempt to become Britain's first Tour de France winner.
Rather than a huge train of team-mates from his former HTC team guiding him into pole position for the victory as Cavendish has been able to rely on in previous years, the 27-year-old has had – at best – just one or two Sky team-mates to help him through the pack, barring one stage where they guided him as far as the final kilometre.
But bizarrely enough, Cavendish – reigning World Champion, Britain's greatest road-racer and the fastest sprinter of his generation – does not appear to mind being comparatively isolated and cutting such a relatively low profile. For once, Cavendish and Sky have bigger fish to fry.
"Funny emotions tonight," Cavendish tweeted in the week, "no matter how many stage wins we get, I won't be happy unless we have the yellow jersey in Paris. Allez Wiggo."
Cavendish knows full well that he is unable to take the Tour victory himself. But he is equally aware that to ride into Paris on July 22 with Wiggins in the race lead – or even on the podium, which would also be a British first in the Tour – is a landmark in sport, which would be hard to overshadow.
No matter how many times it is repeated, for any country a breakthrough at that level is historic. Cavendish outstripping the total number of stage wins by Lance Armstrong or André Darrigade, the sport's greatest sprinter, who both have 22, is a huge achievement. But, unfairly, perhaps, it pales in comparison with a yellow jersey in Paris.
Sky are currently in an "all hands on deck" scenario, given that they have already lost a key climber, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, through injury, and another, Australian Richie Porte, is not in great shape after crashing three times on stage six. And Cavendish – who has proved umpteen times in the past that he can play the sterling team-mate – is just as indispensable as the rest.
This will not be new to Cavendish, or surprising to those who know him well. At the Commonwealth Games in India, for example, after his own racing was done, Cavendish happily acted as an impromptu mechanic, and washed bikes and fixed tyres for his Isle of Man team-mates. At the Tour of Romandie this year he worked his fingers to the bone for Wiggins, pulling back breakaways that had no possible interest for him. And this autumn he will almost certainly take part in the World Championships, on a course so hilly he knows he cannot win, in order to "pay back" his team-mates for helping him clinch the rainbow jersey of champion last year.
So when Sky director Sean Yates says: "Cav won't be allergic at fetching water bottles from the team car" – one of the many thankless, unseen, tasks lower-ranked team riders have to do in races – they are not idle words. And it cannot be forgotten that Cavendish has his eyes on an even greater prize than his 22nd or 23rd Tour stage win: the Olympic road-race in London the following Saturday. If he fine-tunes his form at the Tour to increase his chances of taking gold there, then all his sacrifices and relatively low profile at the Tour will quickly be forgotten.
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