• Country

Mark Cavendish Finds a Team and Sets Sights on the Tour de France

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Mark Cavendish’s 21st-place finish in the first stage of the Tour of Oman was certainly less than impressive but the 37-year-old Isle of Man native has plenty of excuses, primarily rustiness due to a tumultuous search for a new team that resembled a ride on a roller coaster.

The former world champion and winner of 34 Tour de France stages was riding for Deceuninck–AlphaVinyl when he was told, by team manager Patrick Lefevere, that he would be replaced by Fabio Jakobsen as the teams’ sprinter in the Tour de France and that there was no place on the team’s roster in 2023. That set Cavendish on a course to find a new team for the two more years he wanted to ride on the World Tour circuit.

He was all set to sign a one-year contract for 2023, with the possibility of a one-year extension with the French team B&B Hotels-KTM, when the team collapsed in December due to budget problems. This left Cavendish in a difficult spot for many World Teams had already set their budgets for 2023 and many had also reached the 30-rider limit, effectively ending recruitment for 2023. And few teams were willing to sign an ageing sprinter, even one who has chalked up 53 individual stage wins in Grand Tour races.

Racing publications devoted lots of space to Cavendish’s predicament, as several teams expressed interest in having a cycling legend under contract. One team was the US outfit Human Powered Health, whose manager, Jonas Carney, was especially eager to sign him. “We tried to bring Mark to our team,” he said. “Cavendish is a legend of our sport and still competes at a very high level. For us, it was an opportunity to improve our results, raise the level of our project and maybe get invited to some big races.”

But Human Powered Health is a UCI ProTeam, racing in the sport’s second division and without the resources to afford a top rider such as Cavendish who wanted to continue riding in the top level. And then Alexander Vinokourov, the general manager of the UCI World Team Astana Qazaqstan, called and Cavendish’s future began to look much brighter. “The biggest thing about everything was how Vino spoke to me,” Cavendish told CyclingWeekly. “Just the context in how he spoke: I didn’t have to feel that I had to prove myself. It was quite professional.”

Vinokourov has also been through a lot in his career. He crashed heavily in the 2007 Tour de France when he was regarded as a strong yellow jersey contender, and a few days later tested positive for blood doping and was banned from racing for a year. On the other hand, he won the GC of the 2006 Vuelta a España and the 2012 Olympic Games road race.

After lengthy negotiations, Astana Qazaqstan finally announced in mid-January, less than a month before the start of the Tour of Oman, that it had signed Cavendish for 2023. Cavendish was, of course, delighted, telling journalists, “The joy of riding my bike and the hunger to continue winning are as bright as ever… As always, the objective will be for us to stand on the top podium.” However, this is not yet a marriage made in heaven, for Astana Qazakstan has never been known as a sprinting team, which Vinokourov was quick to admit. When announcing the signing, Vinokourov said that “the arrival of a top sprinter is kind of a challenge for us.”

But Cavendish remains optimistic, saying, “If I didn’t believe in what they had here, I wouldn’t be at the team. It’s a very, very good team.” Both Vinokourov and Cavendish are on a mission, while Vinokourov wants to add a few green jerseys to the team’s trophy collection, especially the Tour’s Škoda Green Jersey. That would suit Cavendish who last won it in 2021 for it will give him the chance to win his 35th Tour de France stage and finally break the great Eddy Merckx’s record.

The Tour of Oman is the first stepping stone on that journey. “It’s a good place to prepare my race fitness and get to know the guys,” Cavendish said. “To get to know each other properly it’s actually a very good place to do that here.”