London 2012: Cycling Road Race Favourite Cavendish in Form After Historic Tour

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2012

Will Mark Cavendish be leaving his rivals for dust at London 2012 in the same he did on the Champs-Elysees at the Tour de France?
Will Mark Cavendish be leaving his rivals for dust at London 2012 in the same he did on the Champs-Elysees at the Tour de France?Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

On a weekend featuring The Open Championship, Formula One and England test match cricket, it was an extraordinary thing for cycling fans in Britain to find that the Tour de France was dominating sports news above all else.

That, of course, was a result of Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins, three-time Olympic gold medalist, last Sunday becoming the first Brit to win cycling's most prestigious race in 99 editions going back to 1903.

While the sport has not enjoyed the relative prominence it did for a time in the United States during the Lance Armstrong era (though it still has a steady following), cycling has become increasingly mainstream in British sport since the success of Team GB at the 2008 Games in Beijing and will be one of its biggest medal hopes at London 2012.

The full story of this remarkable achievement in both the track and road media of the sport, masterminded by Team Sky and British cycling head honcho Dave Brailsford, is a story in itself.

Wiggins' maillot jaune triumph was in many ways the culmination of the enormous efforts of Brailsford and many others, but just as thrilling a part of this success story has been the continuing brilliance of a man who can safely claim to be the fastest thing on two wheels (sans engine, anyway).

Mark Cavendish, the 'Manx Missile' and reigning World champion, winner of two Grand Tour points classification jerseys and 23 Tour de France stages—among many other achievements.

If you're a cycling fan, you will know most of this. If not, it demonstrates the 27-year-old's enormous success and gives you an idea why he is the favorite heading into this Saturday's Olympic road-race through the streets of London and Surrey, finishing amid the grand surroundings of The Mall.

Cavendish deals in winning stages, using his phenomenal speed and bike-handling skills in dangerous sprint finishes full of similarly single-minded men gunning for victory.

Cav frequently uses the metaphor of a soccer striker putting the ball in the back of a net to describe his job to the unfamiliar.

For the levels of complexity and effort required from his teammates in ensuring he is in these positions, his role is slightly more comparable to that of a wide receiver in American football scoring a touchdown after the combined effort of several others (really you're better off checking out the tape itself to see him at his actual best).

Prior to Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Cavendish was Britain's biggest name in road cycling, his maillot vert and World Championship successes in 2011 bringing then-unprecedented accolades and exposure for an Englishman in his business.

Joining Wiggins and other faces familiar from their Team GB past in Team Sky for the 2012 season, Cavendish was well aware that for first time in several years, his sprint success would have to take a backseat to the team's general classification aspirations, while he himself targeted the Olympic road-race as his primary target for the year.

It was all the more remarkable, then, that Cavendish was able to come away with three stage wins at this year's Tour, including a fourth consecutive win on the famous cobbles of the Champs-Elysees to push him to fourth on the all-time list and cement his status as the race's greatest ever sprinter.

Unlike previous years, when he was the focus of attention of his HTC-Highroad team (one of several sponsors after which they were named for over two decades), Cavendish was mostly left to his own devices (though his long-term right-hand man Bernhard Eisel did help) and was also called upon to do domestique duty on occasion, doing things like going back to the team car to collect drink bottles.

This made him more susceptible to crashes (a couple of which he did suffer) and also generally left him without a lead-out train to put him in the best positions to win stages (though it should be noted Sky made up for this in spectacular style on the final stage in Paris, and he doesn't necessarily need one to win).

With the Olympics only weeks away, it would have been understandable to find Cavendish grumbling loudly and even quite reasonable if he had given up on the harsh and demanding climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees so as to save himself for London.

Instead, he quite commendably stuck it out, playing his role in the team's monumental success and getting the reward for it in Paris.

There have been more tangible successes in Cavendish's career, but heading into London it was a timely reminder of his determination and his admirable qualities as a team player.

This is vital, as it will be the men charged with setting him up for a sprint to the line in the English capital—Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard (all with previous experience in the role, having been part of the British team at the 2011 World Championships)—who will be the difference between Cavendish taking a medal or not.

Following nine laps on Surrey's Box Hill, it is not a certainty that on returning into London the race will conclude with a sprint finish. Others, such as Italian climbing specialist Vincenzo Nibali (talking to Gazzetta Dello Sport, via, have expressed their hopes at taking their chances, while it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of a surprise attack or two from one of the smaller cycling nations.

If it comes down to a sprint, Cavendish will likely come face to face with several rivals from the UCI World Tour, possibly including Sky teammate and Norwegian star Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Fellow three-stage winners from this year's Tour de France, Andre Greipel (Germany) and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) will be keen to stop Cavendish from grabbing the glory on home soil (or is that tarmac?). Others, like Tom Boonen (Belgium), Matthew Goss (Australia) and Tyler Farrar (USA), will be equally desperate for success following a quiet summer.

For Cavendish, Olympic gold is one of the few remaining individual achievements left for him to win, with the chance to win it in his own country adding to the significance.

Victory would certainly add to cycling's ever-growing profile in Great Britain.

For the rest of the world, such an occurrence would just mean it is yet another chance to watch one of sport's finest competitors do what he does best. Blink, and you'll miss it.