Tour de France: Cavendish putting success before sentimentality as he makes Harrogate return

MORE GLORY: Mark Cavendish will be targeting his 26th Tour de France stage win when the opening stage of this year's race takes him from Leeds to Harrogate this afternoon

ALL SMILES: Mark Cavendish pictured during the Omega Pharma QuickStep team presentation at Leeds Arena this week.

First published in Tour de France news
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THERE is nothing particularly new about Mark Cavendish spending some of the summer in Harrogate.

For most of his childhood years, Cavendish would make an annual trip to the North Yorkshire town to visit his grandparents and reminisce with his mother, Adele, about her formative years there.

They would eat breakfast in Bettys Tea Room and stroll along the wide, open spaces of the Stray. He has shied away from answering the question directly this week, but legend has it that a teenage Cavendish even rode his bike along Harrogate’s roads as he gradually began to fall in love with the sport that has come to define him.

This afternoon, the 29-year-old will be back. He will pass by Bettys on Parliament Street, and sweep up the Stray once more. Like the thousands of spectators who will be lining the streets to greet him, however, it is safe to say he will never have seen Harrogate looking quite as it does on its greatest sporting day.

“It’s incredible that for the second time in my career, the UK has got the Grand Depart of the Tour de France,” said Cavendish, as he completed his pre-race duties with a formal press conference for his Omega Pharma QuickStep team in Leeds. “And this time the first stage finishes in my mother’s hometown. It’s really exciting.

“I remember being here in Harrogate many summers. My grandparents live here, and my uncle still lives here too. It’s nice to look around the places I knew when I was young.”

That was about as effusive as it got. While other sportsmen in similar circumstances might have been swept away along a road of childhood memories, Cavendish doesn’t really go in for sentimentality or schmaltz.

When he lines up at Harewood House for this morning’s ceremonial start, he will be doing so because he wants to be the first across the line when the opening stage ends five hours or so later. The fact that it ends in Harrogate is of minor interest, but his will to win will be no more pronounced just because there is an emotional element bolted on.

We, in the media, love a poignant back story. Cavendish loves winning bike races.

“Winning in Harrogate would have sentimental value,” he has said previously. “But you have to take the emotion out of it. Just get on with the job of being first over the line.

“I let myself get caught up in the whole thing of winning the road race at London 2012, but it didn’t work out.”

If that sounds cold and clinical, then it should hardly come as a surprise. In the rest of the sporting world, it is hard to think of anyone who has to be as focused and detached as sprint cyclists, with five or six hours of intense physical effort being boiled down to 30 seconds of madness in which so many things can go wrong.

The record books prove that Cavendish gets it right more often than most, with his 25 Tour de France stage wins putting him joint third on the all-time list behind the legendary figures of Bernard Hinault and Eddie Merckx.

Surpassing those two icons would make Cavendish the most successful sprinter of all time, but the Manxman is too grounded, too aware of the role played by fate, to take anything for granted.

There is an added reason to target a stage win this afternoon with extra relish, namely that a victory on stage one would leave him in the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, something he has previously cited as a burning ambition. Again, though, he is keen to stress that it is anything but a done deal.

“There’s always things go right and wrong in the Tour de France, and nothing is a given,” said Cavendish. “There’s 200 bike riders on the start line, and every one of those would like to win the yellow jersey.

“The peloton is at a high at the minute. The speeds we’re racing shows a step up in what cycling is. I would like to win (today), but there’s still another 20 days to go and we’d like to finish with a successful Tour de France.”

It would have been foolish for Cavendish to say anything else, but how does the somewhat world-weary figure that was presented to the press this week square with the cocky, even arrogant persona that was attached to the former BBC Sports Personality of the Year when he first started winning big?

In truth, the image of Cavendish as a braggart was always misplaced. It stemmed, in part, from the raised finger salute that accompanied his victories, as well as the supreme confidence that undoubtedly helped propel him to the top of a sport in which there is no place to hide or cower.

Yet Cavendish was always a more complex character than his critics claimed, shy and intensely private when he was off the bike and fiercely protective of his team-mates who did so much to propel him to glory.

Even so, he readily admits he has changed in the last few years, partly because fatherhood has given him a different perspective and helped mellow his more rampantly competitive edges, and partly no doubt because his dominance has been gradually eroded by the emergence of new stars.

Last year’s two stage wins on the Tour would have satisfied most riders, but for Cavendish, who had grown accustomed to garnering five or six victories each year, it was an acceptable return but no more.

Defeat to Marcel Kittel on the Champs Elysees was interpreted in some quarters as a changing of the guard, and while that view is far too simplistic given the huge number of variables involved in sprinting, it is undeniable that while Cavendish once found himself a couple of bike length’s clear of the pack, now he is faced with a rival boasting commensurate, if not superior, sprinting speed.

The pair enjoy a mutual respect – “he’s a young kid that likes to go out and race his bike and likes to win. It’s his job to beat me and I understand that” – and their rivalry should provide a thrilling Tour de France subplot for many years to come.

Today, it should be the dominant narrative. Kittel, a 26-year-old German who won four stages on last year’s Tour, won the first individual stage of this year’s Giro D’Italia and would be the favourite in a straightforward sprint.

Cavendish, with his extensive experience and handpicked team-mates who are there solely to lead him into the perfect position, will fancy his chances on what will be a technically-demanding uphill finish after a winding journey through the Dales. The forecasted showers could also work in his favour.

Either way, and it would also be wrong to rule the likes of Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel and Alexander Kristoff out of the equation, it promises to be a spectacle befitting of the occasion.

“The support that not just Yorkshire, but the whole of the UK, has for this Grand Depart is phenomenal,” said Cavendish. “It’s like something I’ve never seen. People who rode the Tour de France when it started in London in 2007 still talk about it. I think Yorkshire’s going to out-do that.”

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