Monday, July 25, 2011

Mark Cavendish, The UK's Best Athlete ... ?

By Matt Slater, reposted from BBC WebSite, originally here

Mark Cavendish is David Beckham big in Belgium. In fact, he isn't David Beckham, he is Mark Cavendish. And not just in Belgium, but also France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain ... pretty much everywhere they love cycling. The Isle of Man, too. Definitely there.

In the rest of the United Kingdom? Not so much. But I think we will get there. After all, we say rower Sir Steve Redgrave is our greatest Olympian, we went nuts for curling a few years ago and track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, another minority sport knight of the realm, sold breakfast cereal thanks to his pedalling antics.

So we love winners - and Cav is definitely that.

His victory in Sunday's final stage of the Tour de France was his third straight win on the Champs Elysees. Nobody else has even won it back-to-back.

It was also his fifth stage win in this year's race and his 20th Tour success overall, good enough for sixth on the all-time list, only two behind Lance Armstrong's tally and 14 off the legendary Eddy Merckx's record. Cavendish is still only 26.

This year, there was something different about Cavendish's glorious gallop up one of the most famous streets in the world - he did it in green. That's the colour worn by the leader in the Tour's points competition, which is the race's most consistent high-finisher. Typically, the wearer of the green jersey is the best sprinter in the field.

Cavendish's previous victories in Paris were spectacular but they were also slightly Pyrrhic. Another man was in green and the Cav-alry charge came too late to take it off them. There was an element of controversy on both occasions, a hint of misfortune and perhaps even questions about the Manxman's strategy for success.

But, of course, there is no changing the past, let alone Cavendish.

With a slightly different scoring system, this year was different, although the man himself, so he told us, was exactly the same.

In truth, this was only half right. Cavendish is still utterly focused on crossing the line first. That is what gets people out of the chairs at home. It is what people remember. He has lost nothing of his bravery and keen sense of timing either. But he is also slightly lighter than he has been. A compromise with his body has been reached. A few pounds of fast-twitch muscle have been sacrificed in order to help him get over the mountain passes slightly easier.

This has kept him in the bunch for longer on non-sprint days, enabling him to pick up points for the intermediate sprints he used to ignore.

After making his now customary slow start to the season (remember, this guy is a superstar, so it is all relative), he was moving comfortably through the gears by the time he took two stage wins in three days at the Giro d'Italia.

You don't keep doing this, however, without attracting the attention of every other would-be winner in the peloton. Cavendish is the most marked man in professional cycling.

So when he got boxed in and missed his chance in the Tour's first bunch sprint, those questions were asked again. We did not have to wait long for the answer.

As well as winning the 21st and final stage, he also snaffled the sprints in the fifth, seventh, 11th and 15th stages. This degree of domination is unprecedented in recent cycling history.

I managed to catch a few words with British cyclist David Millar after the teams had completed their laps of honour. He was clutching a plastic glass of champagne and generally looking like a man who didn't have to ride his bike again tomorrow.

So just how good is Cav? I asked.
"He is Britain's best athlete right now and probably the best sprinter in the history of cycling," the 34-year-old veteran said. "I know it's always a big claim when you start calling people the best ever but he is that good and it is a shame that people at home don't quite realise that yet."
I have already written about why this might be but I was heartened by the number of British fans I saw amongst the estimated 250,000-strong crowd in Paris, all vying for a vantage point along the barriers. Cavendish is catching on.

Moments after I left Millar to make his plans for a mighty rehydration session this evening, Cavendish swung around the corner, a three-legged Isle of Man flag and Union Jack wound around his neck.

Immediately, there was a rush of autograph-hunters, phone-snappers and well-wishers towards the man in green but he stopped for a quick chat and patiently signed everything that was thrust under his nose.

As per usual with this apparently most individual of talents, he was quick to praise the "incredible guys" in his team and thank them for "finally" helping him to the prize he wanted most. He admitted the new scoring system, with its emphasis on stage wins, had helped but denied there was any hint of panic on his part when he was forced to change his bike with 30km to go on the final stage.

He rode effortlessly back to the field, efficiently through it and, well, we saw the rest.

But unlike Millar, whose other half is expecting a baby very soon, Cavendish's season is not over. For him, there will only be moderate celebrations given that there are World Championships to prepare for.

Victory in Copenhagen in September, on a course seemly designed with Cavendish in mind, would further enhance his standing and bring even more recognition.

He may not get a personal call from the prime minister to discuss the suitability of calling a national holiday, as Australian yellow-jersey winner Cadel Evans got from Julia Gillard, but Cavendish might start to get some of that Belgian love back home.

He has earned it.

By Matt Slater, reposted from BBC WebSite, originally here.