Today, We Spell Redemption "C-A-V"

Jul 9 2010

Mark Cavendish and his bookThere seems to be a consensus among a certain group of American fans that being a sprinter is almost shameful. They rely entirely on talent. They never have to put their noses in the wind, just go fast for 200m at the end. It’s too easy. Their teammates do all the work. They make the flat stages boring.

But I think—or at least hope—that impression took a serious hit after the finish of Stage 5. To see Mark Cavendish, one of the loudest and cockiest speed merchants in recent memory bawling on the podium as if Publisher’s Clearing House had just paid a visit to his mobile home, should give the sprint-haters pause.

Let’s be clear about this—Cavendish is has won 11 stages of the Tour de France. That’s one win shy of the total accrued by Miguel Indurain, who took the whole enchilada five times running. Yesterday’s finish was not a one-off dream win by a lesser-known rider from a lower-tier team in his hometown; it was another bike-length victory from a man who, since 2008, has made winning sprints about as remarkable as packing a lunchbox.

So why the tears? Indurain was 26 years old when he won his first Tour; Cav is currently 25. Before him, the sport has raised up and summarily cast down any number of young sprinters. While he’s reinvented himself as a SaxoBank domestique, Baden Cooke’s brilliant performance at the ’03 Tour never did see a proper follow-up. Ivan Quaranta, once hailed as Cipollini’s comeuppance, made his final top-level start (getting shelled from a TTT at the ’03 Vuelta) while the Lion King (at the ripe old age of 36) still wore rainbow stripes. And has anyone seen Tom Boonen toward the front of Grand Tour recently?

Baden Cooke straddles the toptubeAs Petacchi (again, age 36) rolled past Cav to two wins in the first week of this year’s Tour, the Manxman couldn’t have escaped the feeling that this all might be a little bit of history repeating. Certainly his 2010 season to date had not been up to par, grabbing headlines more for comments and behavior than results, and finding himself, unusually, tied up in crashes and an intrasquad feud.

In the classics, time lost on a bad line through a corner can be regained over cobbles or a berg. In the mountains, you can ignore the bursts of your rivals and pull them back at your own pace, or limit your losses if you can’t. In the time trial, checkpoints and the radio let you mete out each individual watt with scientific precision. As a long breakaway comes into the line, tactical savvy plays as much of a role as pure power.

But group printers can cling to none of these other factors—there’s nerve, and there’s power. You get a split second to chose whether to jump or wait, go left or right, grab this wheel or that. There’s no real way to train those things, and when you lose it, it’s impossible to know whether it’s gone for a for a week, for a season, or forever.

So congrats to Cav—with a serious nod to his helmsman Mark Renshaw—for bridging that abyss yesterday. Sure, he had a little help from a Garmin-Transitions squad beset by injury and a bit of miscommunication, but the bounce-back is still notable, as evidenced by the fact that so many riders before him have failed to pull it off.

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