Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) bid adieu to the Tour de Suisse on Thursday, a departure that could have been due to any number of reasons. It was reported Wednesday morning that he would leave the race to attend his grandmother’s funeral, and it was reported on Thursday morning that he had left the race due to injuries sustained in Stage 4’s dramatic finish-straight crash. Either of those reasons would be understandable, but some observers – me included – are wondering if he was drummed out of the race a bit quicker by people calling for his head on a pike for causing the aforementioned crash. If that’s the case, I think it’s unfortunate.
Since he started winning big sprints four years ago or so, Cavendish has been called a lot of things – brash, cocky, racist, disrespectful, asshole, you name it. He’s also been called talented, an eager learner, and a good teammate, but those descriptors don’t tend to linger quite as long as the others. But even though the guy attracts epithets like Colnagos attract attorneys, the one thing I’ve never actually heard Cavendish called is “dangerous.”
Sure, he’s had occasional run-ins in sprints, as when Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) felt Cavendish squeezed him towards the barriers at last year’s Tour de France. I’m sure there have been others as well – most full-time sprinters have a few disputes to their credit – but Cavendish certainly hasn’t been tapped as the heir to Djamolidine Abdoujaparov or Graeme Brown, or any of the other sprinters who have been reflexively dubbed “kamikaze” over the years. And there are people who have that reputation for good reason – there are more photographs of René Haselbacher (Vorarlberg-Coratec) bleeding on the ground than there are of him riding a bike. In contrast to those sprinters of sometimes-ill repute, Cavendish’s biggest offenses have typically been committed in the interview tent, not in the final 200 meters. And now people are ready to burn him at the stake for a single, albeit spectacular, crash.
Did Cavendish cause that mess of carbon and flesh on the road in Wettingen? Oh, hell yes, he did. Indeed, Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) was sprinting with his head down, which isn’t the safest move, either, but the balance of responsibility is clearly on Cavendish. His move from the right to the center of the roadway, pinching Gerald Ciolek (Milram) and colliding with Haussler was a stupid move, whether it was the result of carelessness or a poorly considered tactic (a distinction we outsiders will probably never really be able to make for sure). And his actions following the crash – allegedly spitting at competitors who dared to call him out on his actions and trying to deflect blame in interviews – are immature and reprehensible.
Which is all to say that Cavendish probably deserves the earfuls he’s received from his coworkers and the public in the days following the crash, as well as the relegation and the fine the UCI slapped on top of it. Maybe he’ll learn something from it, maybe not, but personally, I think that’s as far as the punishments need to go. I’m well aware that there are plenty of people who don’t agree with that – I’ve seen cries for a suspension; calls for a higher fine given the offender’s income; I’ve even heard suggestions that Caisse d’Epargne should “seek compensation” for Coyot’s injury.
I’d venture that the people shouting for those punishments are doing so based more on their distaste for Cavendish’s personality than on his actual riding on Stage 4 of the Tour de Suisse, or even on the career balance of his behavior on the road. Fortunately, that just isn’t the way the rules work. I’d also argue that people calling for extensive punishments are being incredibly short-sighted. Crashes happen every day in bike racing, and they’re always somebody’s fault. If you open that door to suspensions and damages for every crash, riders will be in court or in front of some UCI commission every day for the results of an unintended chop in a corner, for not spotting that traffic island in time, or for misjudging the gap between barrier and opponent. What’s adequate compensation for diving for your feed and taking down Alberto Contador two weeks before the Tour de France? What’s the right suspension for forcing a bad line into the Arenberg Forest and crashing Boonen out? And who do you want to make those decisions?
So, in the rush to hang Cavendish for what is for all intents and purposes a first offense, people are advocating introducing a godawful legal mess into a sport that’s already chock full of godawful legal messes, despite the fact that peloton enforcement for dangerous riding has taken care of itself for decades. Besides, relevant case law indicates that Claude Criquielion already went down that road once, and all it did was waste a lot of people’s time and money. So I’d recommend that fans who want more heavy-handed treatment of Cavendish just sit back and enjoy the verbal and editorial browbeating he’ll receive this week, and then move on. I’m not saying you have to like the guy, but let’s keep a little perspective here.
As for the riders’ sanctimonious “protest” yesterday? I’d ask them where they were when Paolo Bettini absolutely mauled Baden Cooke at the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, or when the great Erik Zabel balled up Stage 2 of the 2007 Tour de France. I’d venture that back then they just clutched their rosary beads, recited a few “well, that’s cyclings,” and moved on with their days because, well, everybody likes Erik and Paolo and everyone makes mistakes. But not so with Cavendish, eh?
Look, I certainly understand the anger – nobody likes to hit the deck or lose a teammate because someone else is riding like an ass – but our protesters should also remember that cycling is often a matter of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Or in layman’s terms – it could be you who cocks up tomorrow, so best keep your mouth shut. Unless everybody likes you, of course.
- A lot of people will read the above and quickly think, “Well, he just likes Cavendish.” And they’d be right, though I think I’d have written the same about anyone except a habitual repeat offender (e.g., Haselbacher). Frankly though, I’m not sure why I like Cavendish, since I’d usually be among the first to find his smart-ass attitude irritating. Maybe it’s because, like Cavendish, I’m a member of the 5’7” team, and while we’re stacked with climbing talent, we really needed a top-notch sprinter.
- Two posts in a row with Abdoujaparov mentions. Never would have seen that coming, but the guy’s just a useful synonym for crazy sprinting.
- I love that AG2r stated they were part of the protest because Cavendish elbowed one of their guys at some point. For whatever reason, it just makes them sound comically oversensitive. I mean, I’ve elbowed at least three people today, and I work in an office.
- Here’s a question for you: Based on what you saw on Tuesday, are races safer or more dangerous with Mark Cavendish in them? He obviously plays it a bit rough at times, but just like Mario Cipollini’s boys in the 1990s, the HTC-Columbia train does keep things nice and orderly in the last 40k of the sprint stages.
- Happy 65th birthday, Eddy.
- Hey! I started a Twitter feed. It’s at the left if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s mostly a test to see if I can make a point in less that 1,200 words.