Mark Cavendish won the Tour of Belgium's final stage after outsprinting Pascal Ackermann (right) and Dylan Groenewegen (far left), who himself is looking to rediscover some form following his return from suspension

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

If he makes it, and goes on to add to his 30 Tour de France stage victories, it would surely rank as one of sport’s great comebacks. Even if he doesn’t, it has been an extraordinary tale. 

Mark Cavendish’s stunning renaissance this season – which has seen the veteran sprinter, at the age of 36 and after three years without a victory – turn back the clock with a series of wins, continued on Sunday with victory in the final stage of the Tour of Belgium.

Cavendish, a last-minute call-up following an injury to Deceuninck-Quick Step’s lead sprinter Sam Bennett, beat a stellar field that included Tim Merlier, Pascal Ackermann, Caleb Ewan and Dylan Groenewegen.

With Bennett’s fitness still up in the air, talk is growing that the Manxman could find himself heading to the Tour for the first time since 2018. But is it realistic to expect a rider, who was without a contract seven short months ago and who looked to be heading into forced retirement, to make his return on the biggest stage of all? Where the pressure to add to his palmarès and further close the gap to Eddy Merckx (the all-time leader on 34 stage wins) provides an incessant distraction, one which no other rider has to face?

Tour de France 2021

Will it happen?

It may well. Bennett’s knee does appear to be a problem. Initially referred to in a team press release as a “small incident in training”, they are now describing it as inflammation of the patella tendon. Sources close to the team suggest it is a worry, with Bennett off the bike all last week. Hardly the ideal build-up to the biggest race in the world. 

Sam Bennett, the winner of the green jersey at last year's Tour de France, is in a race to make the starting line at this year's race, which gets under way in Brest on June 26

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Patrick Lefevere, the Deceuninck-Quick Step general manager, said in his most recent column in Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that there was “no Plan B” if Bennett did not make it. But there is an argument to suggest that he would rather have Cavendish than Bennett in his Tour team anyway. The Irishman, who won the green jersey last year, is leaving the team at the end of the year of course. A win for Cavendish would not only be a bigger story PR-wise, it would be the ultimate recognition for Lefevere for believing in him. An injury to Bennett could be an elegant solution.

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Can Cavendish still cut it?

If you had told anyone in cycling seven months ago that Cavendish would be in the running for Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Tour de France squad for 2021, they would have looked at you as if you had two heads. Not only had he not won a race in years – the result of seasons lost to debilitating Epstein-Barr virus, assorted injuries, mental health issues and resulting loss of confidence – he did not even have a team. The Bahrain-McLaren project, where even his old pal Rod Ellingworth appeared to have lost a bit of faith in him, had collapsed. It took Lefevere to step in and offer him a last-minute deal to save his career. But there were no great expectations.

The manner of his latest win on Sunday, however, was breathtaking, and surely ends any doubt over whether Cavendish still has it. His four wins at the Tour of Turkey in April were one thing. It was a great story but the field in Turkey was not the deepest. Cavendish’s win in Belgium was on another level. He went from 200 metres out and beat some of the world’s top sprinters for pure speed. The confidence surging through him now is plain to see. Cavendish was incredibly energised in his post-race media and his post on Instagram in the immediate aftermath offered a little insight into his motivation levels: "Done? Nah mate, nowhere near.. Whaaaaa that was a nice win today @belgiumtour.” It has been coming, too. With 12 podiums this season, Cavendish has been consistently competitive.

Contract complications?

There appears to be some confusion on this score. Lefevere wrote in his newspaper column that at a dinner with Cavendish after Elfstedenronde, the one-day race where he was second to Merlier following a photo-finish, he had brought up the subject of riding in a grand tour again, to which the sprinter had basically replied: "Not on my current salary."

Deceuninck-Quick Step general manager Patrick Lefevere is a shrewd operator

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Lefevere added: "I understand his point of view. Mark joined our team at 35 years of age and at the last minute. At that time, the Tour was out of the question. He signed a minimum contract because we had minimal expectations." Lefevere mused that Cavendish’s contract could be extended on better terms prior to the Tour. This has been taken in some quarters to mean that Cavendish is on a UCI minimum salary, and would not countenance going to the Tour unless he had a new deal. It seems more likely Lefevere was simply using a figure of speech about a ‘minimum contract’ as there is no chance Cavendish is on the UCI minimum salary (some 40,000 euros). Either way, there is not thought to be anything to stop Cavendish going to the Tour if he is selected. And he certainly wouldn’t say no if asked, new contract or no new contract.

Pressure

Cavendish does not enjoy all the hype over the Tour; the talk of whether or not he will go. And if he does whether or not he can add to his 30 Tour stage wins. He consistently bats it away and tries not to engage. "I don’t know. At the end of the day, it’s all talk," Cavendish said after his win on Sunday, adding graciously that it was important to see the status of Bennett, the reigning green jersey holder, before discussing his own ambitions.

"The reason the whole Tour de France came up – I didn’t mention it and Patrick didn’t mention it – I won in Tour of Turkey and all of a sudden the media started talking about it. This is a thing that happens a lot. The thing with Eddy Merckx record? I never started that, it was the media that started that, and all of a sudden, it’s like, I’m going for it. It’s the same with this. It’s you guys [the media] that started whether or not I should go to the Tour de France."

So, is Cav going to the Tour or not?….

Cav took the win today on stage 5 of the Baloise Belgium Tour against some pretty fast finishers, but we're still none the wiser when it comes to Patrick Lefevere's Tour squad selection pic.twitter.com/BCBDdSiFyF

— GlobalCyclingNetwork (@gcntweet) June 13, 2021

He knows it is inevitable though. As one of the biggest stars in the sport – the greatest sprinter in cycling history – Cavendish understands it would be a huge story. The hype is inevitable. Of course, he does not need to win to prove himself. Even if he retired now, he has already proved to himself and to the world that he still has what it takes. He has stuck two fingers up at his doubters in remarkable fashion. But would he still want to go back, even with all that pressure and hype? Of course he would. We can only wait to see whether he will.