There is no denying that Mark Cavendish is one of Britain’s greatest cyclists. The reigning world road race champion has 23 Tour de France stage victories to his name, fourth of all time in this respect. Yet Olympic glory has eluded the 2011 Sports Personality of the Year Winner - in Beijing he was the only British cyclist who failed to win a medal as he finished eighth in the madison. Saturday’s 28th place finish in the Road Race ranked as Britain’s biggest disappointment on the opening day’s action and, at least according to Cavendish’s father, marks the end of his quest for Olympic gold.
By 2016, Cavendish will be 31, still young enough to compete in the road race in Brazil. But Cavendish is a sprinter and the Rio de Janeiro course is expected to be too hilly for the Manxman to realistically compete for a medal. So why has one of Britain’s greatest athletes come up short in sport’s greatest event?
Ordinarily, great athletes who come up short are criticised for lacking the mental strength required to win at the very highest level but this Cavendish could never be accused of, having won the final sprint down the Champs Élysées in ‘Le Tour’ each time he has made it back to Paris. Instead, Cavendish has been a victim of circumstance and his own success.
Often accused of arrogance, he did his reputation no favours in the aftermath of his 2008 disappointment by criticising British cycling chiefs for not paying enough attention to the madison event. On this occasion though, the blame rested with himself; after all, he had won gold at the discipline at the 2008 World Championships alongside Bradley Wiggins, who had won three gold medals in Beijing prior to partnering up with Cavendish for his final event of the games. Though fatigue may have taken its toll on Wiggins, Cavendish’s criticisms of British cycling and refusal to speak to Wiggins for months afterwards were far wide of the mark.
In 2012 however, Cavendish has become a quintessential victim of his personal success as well as the achievements of fellow British cyclists Wiggins and Chris Froome and his criticisms of other teams are merited this time around. Team GB’s plan, as they had made abundantly clear, was to lead Cavendish into a bunch sprint at the end of the race, but the plan fell apart the moment it became clear that the rest of the peloton were unwilling to help catch the breakaway that Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov took full advantage of to add gold in London to the silver medal he won 12 years ago in Sydney.
Cavendish reserved much of his criticism for the Australian team, who like GB needed to set up their sprinter, Matt Goss, at the end of the race. Australia’s refusal to help lead the peloton back to the breakaway group can only have been as a result of Cavendish’s successes in recent years. Whilst Goss is a very fine sprinter in his own right, his only chance of beating Cavendish would have been if the British lead out team had exhausted themselves to the extent that they could not launch Cavendish down the Mall. Germany, though occasionally hitting the front, played a very similar game but much like the Australians were far so concerned about hindering Cavendish’s progress that they failed to give their sprinter, André Greipel, any possibility of reaching the podium in what may be his final Olympics.
Cavendish is strong enough to bounce back from the events that transpired in yesterday’s road race and at 27 years of age, he still has plenty of time to potentially overhaul Eddy Merckx's long standing record 34 individual Tour de France stage wins. Cavendish should not be thought of as a failure for his Olympic woes: he remains a truly inspirational figure in British cycling history. It is regrettable that it is his greatness that has prevented him from winning that elusive first Olympic medal.
Cancellara’s Olympic Woes
Bradley Wiggins’ biggest threat to a gold medal in Wednesday’s time trial crashed into the barriers during Saturday’s road race. Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara gave himself a 50/50 chance of making the event on his Twitter page. Wiggins and Chris Froome eased off during the road race to give themselves a better medal chance on Wednesday.