Younger men such as John Degenkolb, Caleb Ewan, Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan are kicking at his heels, but at age 31 Mark Cavendish remains in a class of his own among modern-day sprinters. Just as the prestigious L’Équipe Magazine named him the greatest Tour de France sprinter in history (and that was five years ago) so we’re making him the undisputed No. 1 in our list of the Greatest Road Sprinters of the past four decades.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
Still winning big races, and with a good four or five seasons ahead of him, Cavendish has the potential to keep on setting records. He’s already won more Tour stages than any other sprinter and he’s only four short of equaling Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins (14 of which were individual time trials); he’s also chalked up 15 stages at the Giro d’Italia and three at the Vuelta a España and won the points jersey at all three grand tours.
As for one-day races, Cavendish won the 2011 world road title (and he almost scored a second last October) and taken classic victories at Milan–San Remo, Scheldeprijs (three times), Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (twice) and the RideLondon-Surrey Classic (now a UCI WorldTour event). Cavendish has also used his sprinting speed and endurance on the track to take three six-day wins, an Olympic silver medal in the omnium and three world Madison titles. // It was in the Madison, at age 19, that Cavendish made his first big splash into cycling history. Those who attended the 2005 track worlds in Carson, California, will remember a pugnacious Cavendish, teamed with veteran British teammate Rob Hayles, making a strong attack to gain a lap on a field of six-day specialists—and then hang on by a thread to take gold. “We finished exhausted,” Cavendish told me later. “I was in tears, and it was as much the pride as relief that it was over.”
Remarkably, Cav (as we already called him) had only traveled to Los Angeles for the experience; he replaced an injured Geraint Thomas to race with Hayles for the first time. Later that season, having saved enough money from a two-year stint as a bank teller to go to the Continent, he raced in Germany with the second-tier Sparkasse team. “All I wanted to do was race my bike, prove how good I was, so I could get a professional contract,” he said. “But when I never lost a bunch sprint in two years as an amateur, I knew how fast I was….”
On turning pro in 2007 with T-Mobile (that would morph into Columbia- and HTC-High Road), he started wining races immediately—starting with a victory over Robbie McEwen at the Scheldeprijs, followed by 10 more wins that year. He even started the Tour his rookie season, but a crash just before the end of the opening road stage from London to Canterbury in southeast England robbed him of a potentially sensational start to his Tour career. He had to wait 12 months before winning a first Tour victory, on stage 5 from Cholet to Châteauroux (this image), where he outclassed a pantheon of great sprinters: Óscar Freire (in orange), Erik Zabel (blue) and Thor Hushovd (green). Cav won three more Tour stages that year and has won stages every Tour since, except when the race again started in Great Britain, in 2014, when he crashed out of the race on the opening stage when making a too-risky maneuver in the tight finishing straight.
He’s sometimes been accused of reckless sprints, and he was often furious when another rider jeopardized his finishing effort, but he is one of the true thinkers in the peloton knowing exactly when to make his move, especially when he’s not been set up by a lead-out man. When I asked him once what motivated him, Cav said, “People say to me what race do you want to win next, and I say ‘the next one with a finish line.’ If I’m there at the finish, I want to be first across it. That’s how it is.”