The Dream’s in the Ditch

by eric

Mark Cavendish broke his collarbone on Stage 8 of today’s Tour de France and was forced to abandon the race, one day after narrowly missing out on what might have been his record-setting 35th sprint stage victory.

I started following professional cycling during graduate school in the late aughts. Fixies and blogs were ascendant. I spent a chunk of my work procrastination time hopping from site to site, and master of cycling snark BikeSnobNYC provided enough of a hook that I got interested in the culture and personalities of this very Euro-centric sport as it entered its first post-Lance era. Soon I was religiously reading Velonews and getting up early to catch pirate streams of grand tours and monuments. I got my own road bike and went to a few stages of the Tour of California in person.

Cavendish was everywhere then–ripping off five or more sprint wins in Tour after Tour in dominant fashion. Some folks found his brashness off-putting, arrogant, and were quick to blame him for the crashes that are part and parcel of chaotic sprint finishes. But I always felt like I could see his heart on his sleeve and his love for the sport shining through, and who doesn’t love cheering for a winner?

As the number of his Tour stage victories crept up, there were whispers that he might approach the 34 Tour stage victory record set by unanimous all-time great Eddy Merckx. He won the World Championship, and his palmarès placed him among the best sprinters of all time.

But then the wheels started coming off. Desperate to win the first stage of the 2014 Tour on his home soil in the UK, he crashed out. He won one stage in 2015 and four in 2016 before leaving the Tour early to prepare for the Olympics. In 2017 he crashed into the barriers due to a controversial clash with Peter Sagan, and he missed the time cut on a stage in 2018. Then he came down with the Epstein-Barr virus and his teams didn’t even bring him to the Tour in 2019 and 2020. One began to have an uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the time had passed, and each fall I’d keep an eye on Twitter for news if he’d found a team to sign with for the next season.

The 2021 Tour brought a miracle, though: after signing for the minimum salary with classics powerhouse team Deceuninck–Quick-Step, he was substituted onto the Tour squad at the last minute. With the assistance of a strong leadout team he won four stages, finally bringing him level with the Merckx record at 34. On the final stage in Paris, though, he could only manage third, missing the chance to finish on the highest of notes.

Management fiat giveth and it taketh away: in 2022 his team boss chose to leave him home for the Tour, preferring a younger sprinter. So in 2023 he once again scrounged up a ride with the Kazakh Astana team. With minimal support he aimed for one more stage victory in what he billed as his final Tour. But first shifting trouble and then the crash extinguished those hopes once more.

I only found out the news with difficulty. Some years back Velonews was bought by a conglomerate and slapped up a paywall, on its way to laying off most of its writers. I stopped reading as much, and didn’t learn who the new generation of riders were, and slowly lost track. The blogosphere is long dead; I last saw Bike Snob circling the drain into the reactionary side of social media. is no longer serving up pirate streams, and Twitter is right now in the midst of a Musk-led rapid unscheduled disassembly. Only CyclingNews still seems to provide any kind of reasonable coverage, but I had to think to go seek it out, and nearly didn’t.

Why do I care what an athlete—this athlete—achieves, or doesn’t? Is it just a parasocial relationship, like tracking which celebrities are dating? One difference: even with tremendous talent, the opportunity to win in sport is never guaranteed. The Tour comes but once a year. Fantastic levels of preparation are necessary but not sufficient; chance, illness, and injury will mar even the longest career, leaving behind plenty of “what-ifs” as age forecloses possibility. A memento mori as I enter mid-career and mid-life myself.