Yes, He is That Good

And he's getting better.

Besides collarbones, their associated maladies, and Silence-Lotto’s shocking and continued inability to win bike races, the big news this past week was Mark Cavendish’s (Columbia) allegedly unexpected win in Milan-San Remo on Saturday. The guy’s clearly the fastest sprinter out there, so the win was really only a surprise because popular wisdom dictated that Cavendish wouldn’t make it over the late climbs in any shape to unleash his remarkable sprint. After all, that much-vaunted wisdom holds that San Remo can only be won by a veteran mountain goat – you know, like Alessandro Petacchi (2005) or Mario Cipollini (2002). So much for that…

Now, I’m not claiming Cavendish has the best history when the road goes uphill, but he’s hardly another incarnation of Ivan Quaranta, that other trackie-turned-road-sprinter who continually paid homage to his roots by being unable to ascend anything with more altitude than the boards of the Vigorelli. Cavendish has never come close to that lack of climbing prowess, except for possibly his first year in the big leagues, so some of the more vocal criticisms of his climbing that circulated in the past weeks seemed a bit overstated. That said, you can’t discount Cavendish’s history in the hills entirely. He did need things to break his way to have a shot at the Milan-San Remo title, and they did – the ascents of the Cipressa and Poggio were markedly more sedate than they have been in recent years, with fewer hard-hitting attacks to unship the faster-twitch members of the group, Cavendish included. But many, if not most races are won by riders who just happened to have things fall their way. Just look at last year’s San Remo.

Despite the fact that races are always won partly by virtue of the cards dealt by others, some observers will doubtlessly use this year’s lack of aggression on the climbs to denigrate Cavendish’s San Remo win, and I’ve already seen a few instances of the “come on, is he really that good?” and “well, he’s no Boonen/ McEwen/ Cipollini/ Abdujaparov/ Kelly/ Altig/ Van Steenbergen” thrown out there. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how Cavendish got off on the wrong foot with so much of the public. Sure, he’s made some bold statements regarding his abilities, but he is, after all, 22 years old and very, very fast. And it’s tough to ignore the fact that he hasn’t made a statement yet that he hasn’t lived up to.

I do think that people, particularly older people, fail to fully or accurately account for his age when observing his off-the-bike words and deeds, which seems to weigh heavily and unfairly on their ability to judge whether he’s a good bike rider or not. Simply put, not many of us in our 30s, 40s, and beyond hang out with people just cracking open their second decade, and there’s a reason – it’s just too hard to relate. Many of the defining contexts of our lives are simply too different, and even if we could have, in our younger years, related to that person, we've long since forgotten how. So it's not surprising that he's rubbed some people the wrong way, but in the post San Remo press conference, Cavendish sounded downright reasonable, even to those of us in our dotage. I suppose some will find passing Cipollini while pedaling one-legged in the Tour of California prologue offensive, but that was last year, and c’mon, that’s pretty damn funny. Almost Cipollini-esque, if you will.

It’s too bad if old folks don’t care much for young Cavendish, because it’s that very age issue that really made Cavendish’s win on Saturday something special, not the fact that he got over the hills. At 22, he’s the third youngest winner of the race, after Ugo Agostoni in 1914 (when most people were four feet tall and only lived to be 26, anyway) and a young standout named Merckx, who first won it during the years when an iPod was called a hi-fi, and then a few times later when it was called a stereo. That young men make better sprinters than old men is no secret, so it might seem that San Remo should play to a younger demographic. But what young men don’t often do well is cross the 200k mark, that invisible line that separates stage victories and semi-classics from classics and monuments. Granted, Boonen seems to have been born with the ability to do, but Philippe Gilbert just broke through it last year at Paris-Tours, and he’s 26. Sylvain Chavanel just got there last year as well at 29. Some guys never get there. So for Cavendish to cut from stage wins and semi-classics straight to muscling through San Remo’s 298k is remarkable for such young legs.

Another important distinction Cavendish shares with Merckx and few others is that that he won San Remo his first attempt. As numerous pros have pointed out in countless pre-race interviews over the years, experience counts in the classics. Knowing every little twist, turn, up, and down is a decided advantage, and it usually takes a few years of run-throughs at race speed to get the combination down. Again, some guys never do. There are, however, several things you can do to help mitigate a lack of experience – listening to people that have the experience to help you, and maintaining a laser-like focus on your target and what you need to do to reach it. Neither of those are activities that come naturally to the young, but according to Columbia teammate Mike Barry, Cavendish did both on his way to his first classic win. He also proved that he can keep his head when things don’t go down in clockwork bunch sprint fashion, like when Haussler (Cervelo) inadvertently gapped his own sprinter and the field, forcing Cavendish to jump a bit earlier than he usually does. All of which point to a maturity, on the bike at least, beyond his years.

So will Cavendish ever have the breadth of wins of a Sean Kelly, or ride the cobbles like Boonen? Maybe not. But if you’re talking about winning bunch sprints, which is what he’s really trying to do, there’s no better bet for your money.

Is he better than Cipollini? Better than Jalabert? Who gives a shit – they’re retired.

Does he have their style, their grit? Do you like him? Well, those are all judgment calls, and I can’t make them for you.

Is he good? That good? Yes, he is that good. Especially if you remember we’re talking about professional bicycle racing, not whether you want to have dinner and a snuggle with him.


All the above is old news, of course, and I probably should have posted it earlier in the week. Anyway, on to this weekend's Belgian fun -- the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., E3 Harelbeke, a.k.a. GP E3) on Saturday and the Brabantse Pijl (a.k.a. the Brabant Arrow) on Sunday. One's on the Flemish end of things, the other's in the more neutral territory around Brussels, but they're everyone's last chance to grapple for protected status at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on April 5. My bet's on Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) for E3 (since he doesn't look to be riding the Brabantse Pijl). I'm not sure I've ever seen someone ride as well in the spring with so little to show for it.