As one great sprinter retired from the sport at the grand old age of 39 at the weekend, the man who could be greater than them all was drawing the ire and applause of the last man to win the Triple Crown.
Robbie McEwen bowed out graciously at the end of the Tour of California, bringing the curtain down on a career that saw him win 24 Grand Tour stage wins, 12 of them in the Tour de France. Three green jersey wins at the Tour de France speak of a man who can retire happy, moving into his next life as a sprint coach at Orica-GreenEdge, the Australian superteam.
McEwen will be been too aware that his strength was waning as he got older and that the world now belongs to Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile who is may just become the most successful rider of them all. Stephen Roche, the Irishman who won the Tour, Giro d’Italia and World Championships in the same year, is a legend, but also is not sure whether he is a fan of Cavendish.
“My feelings for Cavendish vary between love and hate, without being too dramatic about it,” he wrote in cyclingnews.com yesterday. “He does incredible things on the bike, he pulls off incredible stunts, he’s got fantastic acceleration and gets himself into a great aerodynamic position in sprints. He’s like a bulldog – totally power-packed. I know that plenty of people have said that he wins a lot because he’s always had a strong lead-out train to set him up, but he’s very often shown that he can win when he doesn’t get such a good lead-out. He can weave his way through the wheels, get into gaps and once he comes off the wheels he’s unmatchable. OK, if he didn’t have a lead-out train he might not win so often, but nevertheless that shouldn’t take away from his ability as a sprinter and his achievements.”
That’s all quite nice from Roche, a decent analysis of Cavendish and how he can sprint with or without a train. He said this week that he had jumped on the wheel of Robbie Hunter to get himself to the front of the sprinting pack. It was a masterful bit of riding, one that McEwen, who didn’t need a train to win stages, would have been proud of. But Roche doesn’t like the cut of Cavendish’s jib.
“As for the man himself, I find him less engaging,” wrote Roche. “When he’s being interviewed he never looks into the camera, he’s always looking away. When he thanks everyone, it always the same story all over again. Sometimes I listen to him and think I’d like to hear something new. But it’s always the same story with him thanking his team-mates and after a while it can sound a little false, even though I am sure that he is totally genuine in what he feels and what he is saying.
So, sometimes his attitude bugs me a little bit, but at the same time he is as he is. All bike champions who reach that level are a little bit special. They have an edge, a steely nature and can be impulsive and say things that can get people’s backs up. I’m sure that if Cavendish was asked to comment on my reactions following key moments in my career he wouldn’t be saying totally positive things either. It is true that it is very easy for me sitting here in my armchair watching from afar to pick holes in his personality, but I would stress that when you look around he is phenomenal – there’s certainly no one else around like him at the moment.”
Indeed there isn’t. Gary Blem, the South African who is Cavendish’s mechanic at Team Sky, says that the man is a one-off. He is a perfectionist that expects perfection from those around him. He can be hard work – Blem spent two-and-a-half hours adjusting his time trial bars when the two were at HTC-Columbia a few years ago. But there is no greater joy than seeing your rider win on a bike you have worked on. McEwen is gone. Long live Cavendish.