Mark Cavendish
Wikimedia Commons/ Antoine Blondin

Cruel Cavendish farewell caps off great era for British cycling

It is easy to look back on the 2012 London Olympics with rose-tinted glasses, not least for its now sadly abandoned vision of our national story. But as far as Britain’s cycling prowess is concerned, they were truly heady days.

There were 12 medals for Great Britain across the road and track, including a staggering eight golds. All of this came after a barnstorming Beijing games with 14 medals, and perhaps most significantly a record-smashing Tour de France win for Bradley Wiggins barely a week before the events began in London.

It was a first ever Tour win for a British rider, and would be followed by five more victories in the next six years. A worthy reward for the hard toil, tactics and cash-splashing of Team Sky, the visionary team which reimagined the way elite cycling operated and laid the foundations for nearly a decade of UK dominance.

Team Sky is now no more, existing under the guise of INEOS, and neither is the professional career of Wiggins. Fellow Tour victors Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas are still around but far past the peak of their powers. And this Tour’s Stage 8 may well mark the end of another of the sport’s British icons, Mark Cavendish, who crashed out and was forced to abandon his campaign after breaking his collarbone around 60km from the finish.

The carrot of a return for Cavendish, who had vowed to make 2023 his last season on the pro circuit, has been dangled before him

Cavendish, barring a brief 2012 romance with Team Sky, never quite operated within the fold described. Playing the plucky assistant did not suit the charismatic Manxman, who two years ago levelled Eddy Merckx’s long-standing record for stage victories. For an almost coterminous period in the early 2010s, Cavendish was a leading light of every Tour, a regular stage winner and a fiercely competitive sprinter who became the best.

Elite cycling is a notoriously brutal and dangerous sport. The physical price is unlike any other discipline and the risks are enormous. But in his stubborn resistance to give in, Mark Cavendish conquered all before him. The comeback which came in 2021 was perhaps unexpected, taking him to Merckx’s level and within an oh-so-close distance of surpassing him.

The carrot of a return for Cavendish, who had vowed to make 2023 his last season on the pro circuit, has been dangled before him. He may well be back to make it to 35 stage wins and destroy a record surely unlikely to ever be beaten. But his departure from 2023’s Tour is a reminder of an era in which British riders defined an entire sport, and came from years in the doldrums to collect medals and race classifications at a whim. Cav, often the outsider, may well not settle for this as a last chapter. Either way, now is the time to rejoice in the successes of a decade which helped to catapult elite cycling into national attention.


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