Cavendish Wins First Classic of Season

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“Cool kid,” Lance Armstrong tweeted in the aftermath of Saturday’s Milan-San Remo race, the first of the cycling season’s classic one-day races. He was referring to Mark Cavendish, the 23-year-old rider from the Isle of Man whose victory in the event had come at his first attempt, emblazoning his name on an honours board also illuminated by those of Alfredo Binda, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and other immortals of the sport.

Cavendish may have taken the race by less than an inch from his nearest pursuer, but it would be very hard to exaggerate the scale of his achievement. Milan-San Remo is one of the five events known as the “monuments” of cycle racing, and only once in a history going back to 1907 had it been won by a British rider. Tom Simpson’s victory in 1964 is one of the undisputed pinnacles of British road cycling, up there with Robert Millar’s King of the Mountains triumph in the 1984 Tour de France and Nicole Cooke’s world championship in Varese last autumn. Now Cavendish has joined them.

After spending almost seven hours in the saddle covering a 190-mile course including the climbs of the Poggio and the Cipressa at an average of over 27mph, Cavendish demonstrated a combination of blazing speed and an instinct for the kill unequalled among contemporary cyclists. Once again, as
he has been doing for the past 12 months, he left the world’s best sprinters in his wake.

Two stage wins in last year’s Giro d’Italia turned out to be a mere hors d’oeuvre for his success in taking four stages of the Tour de France. Only the absence of suspended Tom Boonen, the world’s No1 sprinter, placed the tiniest of question marks against those wins, but a fit and firing Boonen was left behind Cavendish on Sunday, as he had twice been in this year’s Tour of Qatar, and then twice more in the Tour of California.

Now Cavendish has the endorsement of Armstrong to go with that of Merckx, who recently compared him to Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the Uzbek sprinter of the 1980s christened the Tashkent Terror by my colleague William Fotheringham. Like Abdoujaparov, Cavendish takes no prisoners when a race reaches its explosive climax. Nor is he inclined to show much reverence for his rivals off the bike, which has not always made for easy relationships.

Boonen, for example, pointedly questioned his ability to haul himself up the mountains in the way that will be necessary if he is to realise another of his great ambitions and win the points leader’s green jersey in the Tour. But in the Tirreno-Adriatico race earlier this month Cavendish was required to make two ascents of the terrifyingly steep Montelupone, and on Saturday he had the satisfaction of watching Boonen fall behind him on the climbs.

Mario Cipollini, the Italian sprinter, was understandably offended last year when Cavendish went past him pedalling with one leg in the prologue to the Tour of California, a gesture of disrespect that Cavendish now recognises as juvenile. On Saturday, Cipollini was there to congratulate him. “He’s a real nice guy,” Cavendish said.

A ballroom dancer and a talented chess player in his teenage years, Cavendish is an interesting and unresolved mixture of eloquence and passion, of intellectual precision and blunt force. Sprinters have to be major-league egotists, but no riders are more dependent on their team-mates and Cavendish never fails to express his gratitude to those prepared to give their all before peeling away to let him unleash his final dash to the line.

The last glimpse most British sports fans had of Cavendish was when he rode straight out of the Beijing velodrome in a storm of frustration last summer. He and Bradley Wiggins, having started as favourites in the madison, could finish only eighth, making Cavendish the only member of the British cycling squad to go home without a medal. But if he goes on at this rate, he will end up with the biggest trophy cabinet of the lot.

Author

Richard Williams/The Guardian

Date

March 25, 2009