Mark Cavendish goes for the green jersey over the next three weeks but it is the Tour’s yellow jersey he covets in Harrogate on Saturday. Nick Westby looks at the Manx Missile.
For someone as box-office as Mark Cavendish, as an explosive a talent, his build-up to what would be the most emotional of all his victories, has been relatively low key.
Cavendish has eschewed any number of interview requests, save from giving snapshots of post-race emotion after the many victories he has continued to rack up this season.
Even his reconnaissance ride to Yorkshire last month was done on the downlow, until, that was, he had to ask for directions from two schoolboys in Middleham because he was lost.
If it had not have been for that comical slip that made the news, Cavendish would have been able to get in and out of the county with his reconnoitre complete – only the observant among us spotting his unique riding style as he flew past.
Where the team of his great sprinting rival Marcel Kittel, Giant-Shimano, courted publicity on their three-day sojour to the White Rose, and where Sky sought to enhance their standing and boost the interest in their leader Chris Froome by presenting him to the media – a brief insight we were all grateful for – Cavendish has gone about his business very much under the radar.
Perhaps it is because he knows how much the one victory he desires more than any in this Tour de France would be the one that would generate most headlines.
It is certainly a poignant narrative and one we in the media, and our headline writers, are dying to relay – Cavendish, the most successful British sprinter in Tour de France history, winning a stage into his mother’s home town of Harrogate.
As if that storyline, laced as it is with emotion, needed any further incentive, then were he to win a 26th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, Cavendish would finally get his hands on the fabled yellow jersey.
Because for all the success – the multitude of stage wins, the world road race title and the points classification at the Tour de France – Cavendish is not a man who challenges for the overall lead in a grand tour.
He has won between two and six stages in each of the last five Tours de France because he has been the best sprinter over that period. But he cannot climb with the Chris Froomes of this world, so he lags in behind the peloton day after day in the Alps, attempting to keep his powder as dry as possible for the next flat stage when he can once again sprint for glory.
So there is plenty riding on Saturday’s first stage from Leeds to Harrogate for the man they call the Manx Missile.
No wonder he has wanted to stay out of the headlines and keep his head focused firmly on the task at hand.
Cavendish has been the best for so long because he is more driven than anyone else, more passionate.
He takes great pride in the number of stage wins he has accumulated and the place that affords him in history.
Speak to him about the records he chases – three stage wins behind Bernaud Hinault and nine behind Eddie Merckx, the two men above him – and he is too respectful of the company he keeps to give any arrogant rhetoric.
“You have to show the Tour de France the respect it deserves,” he said. “To win one stage can make a career. I aim to win multiple stages each year. This race is everything for me and I want to show the race the respect it deserves.”
When he wins stages, he is quick to thank his team-mates who got him to the line first.
The lead-out train he has at his disposal into Harrogate and beyond is one to send shudders into the men out to thwart him on The Stray – Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel et al.
Mark Renshaw, Alessandro Petacchi, Niki Terpstra, Matteo Trentin and world time-trial champion Tony Martin are all in the Omega Pharma QuickStep team to deliver stage victories for Cavendish.
The sight of Renshaw powering ahead and then giving way to allow Cavendish to peel off his wheel and drive to the line, his revered ‘second kick’ as he calls his burst of acceleration taking him past his rivals, was one of the hallmarks of the 2011 Tour de France.
He won five stages that year, and 16 overall in the three years in which Renshaw was among his lead-out train.
Now reunited with his principal ally after two years apart, there is hope that Cavendish can once again rediscover the blistering form of that period.
Since that remarkable year when he added the world title and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award to his mantlepiece there have been new rivals emerging on the scene who lay claim to the iconic title of ‘fastest man on two wheels’.
Peter Sagan and Kittel, at 24 and 26, are five and three years younger than Cavendish and have won eight stages between them over the last two Tours de France.
Kittel won four on his own at last year’s race and at the recent Giro d’Italia, won two stages in the first few days before withdrawing to keep his legs fresh and his mind sharp for Yorkshire and the Tour de France.
If his own preparation is anything to go by, Cavendish will be sharper.