The worst part is how close he came yesterday. A mechanical away from history. One skipping gear, a loss of momentum, a flying Jasper Philipsen, and the stage win sped away. We did not know in the moment that it would be the last opportunity.
Mark Cavendish will not get 35. An innocuous, straight bit of road was the scene of the crime. Slightly uphill. The group bunched, brakes were grabbed, and Cavendish tipped. “A stupid crash,” Pello Bilbao called it, and he would know since he went down in the same one. He is fine; everyone else is fine, because fate has a cruel sense of humor. “They brake full gas in front, we needed to stop, shit happens,” Bilbao said. Sometimes the low-speed comedowns are the worst. Riders smack instead of slide, and collarbones don’t like that.
We gathered around the Astana bus in Limoges, all a bit solemn. The Brits in particular. Mark Renshaw disappeared into the bus for ten minutes and came back out to a bristle of microphones. “It hurts more than yesterday, and I didn’t think that was really going to be possible,” he said. He is genuine in that statement. Are his eyes glistening? He’s standing two feet from me, certainly looks like it. He helped build the legacy that just abruptly ended, after all. His leadout on the Champs Élysées in 2011 will remain forever one of the finest examples of the craft in the history of the sport.
“I won’t lie, I cried,” he said later. “As did Maurizio in the car, everyone in the team, they’re hurting because there’s a hell of a lot of work gone in.”
Work. Beyond all the wins, that’s how Cavendish will be remembered. As a pro’s pro, a rider who maximized his talent through tenacity, who worked best under siege and when cast aside. His colleagues respect that, and so should we.
There weren’t a lot of tears in the press room, to be honest. But most of us wanted to write the story of 35 stage wins. We are humans, after all. Lumps of subjectivity, pulled by emotion in the same ways as anybody else, objective in demeanour, maybe, but less so in reality. Few among us, a group that makes its living telling stories, can refuse the pull of one like this. Fandom of Cavendish is not required.
Cavendish was as calm as I’ve ever seen him at the start of this Tour de France. A smile a mile wide greeted us in Bilbao. When he couldn’t quite do it on stage 3, and then again on stage 4, he remained chipper. He explained in detail what had gone wrong, how they were going to fix it.
Even on Friday, when a skipping chain (“You try sprinting on a bike going 11-12-11-12,” he said) derailed perfect timing and what certainly looked like race-winning speed, he didn’t react as we expected him to. I’ve seen him throw helmets, throw bikes. Cuss out mechanics. Storm onto the bus, disappear, rage. Instead, he stared. He rolled through the crowd, blank expression beneath those Oakleys, oddly serene.
We watched him try to sit up from the French tarmac, pushing off his right arm, only to have it collapse beneath him. He sat in the medical car on a nondescript road, his face blank. More vacant than angry or even sad; as if his mind was still racing forward without him.
His is a career that has delighted us in its depths as much as its heights. He is narrative arc incarnate. The deeper the valley the higher the climb, and all that. This Tour felt like somebody was writing a script and we were building, slowly, toward a crescendo of champagne and bouquets thrown from a yellow podium. After Friday’s near miss, it felt inevitable. He could have won a Tour stage. He could have had 35. The worst part is how close he came.
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