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Where Is Cav Headed in 2016?

A look into Mark Cavendish's sprinting results and future prospects on the eve of his Dimension Data debut.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I saw a CN headline fly past me on Twitter yesterday indicating something to the effect of how Mark Cavendish had described his goals for the new year, his first with team Dimension Data after three years at Etixx-Quick Step, as a "full-on" season. My initial reaction was, has he not been full-on in the past few years? But that's me being a jerk and Cav referring to the presence of the Olympic Games on this year's slate, where he will ride track (and maybe the road race, albeit with little hope of a medal) in addition to the usual busy slate.

Nevertheless, I saw fit to wonder, where is Cav at these days? Not being a friend of his, my insight into this question is limited to an examination of cold, heartless numbers. How often does he win now that he's hit his thirties? How often does he come close? How often does he miss a sprint? The data is as follows (with the usual caveat about how I tried to figure out what days constituted proper sprints):

Year # sprints Win Podium Top 5 Top 10
2015 25 14 19 20 22
56% 76% 80% 88%
2014 24 11 16 16 16
46% 67% 67% 67%
2013 34 16 22 24 28
47% 64% 71% 82%
2012 39 13 18 20 22
33% 46% 51% 56%

For the sake of comparison, let's look at Cav at his absolute best: 2009, when he entered 35 sprints and won 23 of them, a marvelous 66%. He also made it to the podium 25 times (71%) and showed up for the sprint 77% of the time. That's your gold standard for one occasionally temperamental Manx sprinter.

There are two clear trends in the data above:

  1. He's as efficient as ever, or was in particular this past season; and
  2. He doesn't find himself in as many sprint stages as he did in his youth.

All of this is, in my book, pretty good news for Cav fans and his new team. The dropoff in race starts is natural for a guy who's aging for a sprinter and has compiled enough crashes to dull the senses of a lesser mortal. His race days are not exactly falling off a cliff, but he's not likely to start two grand tours again and, as he points out to CyclingNews, the grand tours aren't inclined to host six or seven sprint stages per race, like the old days. There simply aren't as many chances for him, even if he has a perfectly healthy year.

Other things we can glean from his winning tallies... 2012 was such an odd year for Cavendish, when he had gone "home" to Sky in the world champs' kit, but quickly found his ambitions taking a back seat to the team's Tour de France aims and the needs of Bradley Wiggins. Also, everything is relative, and while Cav was struggling for support at Sky, Andre Greipel was turning in his career-best season. The following year, Greipel was at roughly the same level, and Marcel Kittel arrived to further complicate matters. Same with 2014. In all three of these seasons Cav won fewer than half his sprints, by my calculation. And the number crept up over 50 in 2015, while Kittel languished on the sidelines.

So what does that mean for 2016? A few thoughts.

  • In general Cavendish is aging nicely, for a sprinter. Why a sprinter ages has a lot to do with why he won in the first place. For larger guys like Tom Boonen or Tyler Farrar, who were more or less on top in Cav's early days, they won more with pure power and saw that power diminish ever so slightly, naturally, as they aged. [Both are still competitive in sprints, but even the slightest step backward is enough to knock a guy down several pegs.] Cavendish, by contrast, is well known to win with a mix of power and aerodynamic advantage, getting lower than everyone else and using that lack of drag to win. A slight loss of power might not cost him his full advantage, if at all.
  • Greipel vs Cavendish is a pretty fair fight these days. Obviously there are a number of factors that go into a sprint, like teammates and course and what have you, but over time the head-to-head numbers favor Cav mostly on the basis of those earlier years. Nowadays it's a fairly even split. But the numbers comparing Kittel and Cavendish are not even close to level. A CQRanking head2head run suggests that Cav has NEVER finished ahead of Kittel in a sprint when both riders made it to the front. Sure, those "sprint stage" queries miss probably 20% of the actual sprints that occurred, but when the unadjusted numbers are that clear in their conclusion, it doesn't leave you wondering what they'd look like with some adjustment. Kittel is faster, and he isn't likely to start losing his top speed for another couple seasons (he's 27).
  • Obviously the biggest advantage for Cav now is the devotion of his new team to his cause. Dimension Data got the band back together for Cav, rounding up a number of his former teammates from the glorious HTC days: Mark Renshaw, Kanstantin Siutsou, uber-teammate Bernie Eisel, and Edvald Boasson Hagen was already on board. [So too is Farrar, now pledged to support Cav when called upon.] If it were possible for a transfer to a completely new team to actually increase a rider's comfort level, this is it. And no top rider spends more time publicly discussing his comfort level than Mark Cavendish. That's not a diss, just reality -- he's a heart-on-the-sleeve guy and because of how he rides he needs a lot of help to win. I don't know if I would give him a psychological advantage over his rivals in 2016, but he's as well-stocked in that department as possible right now.

Any guesses on how many wins he bags? I'll pick a nice round(ish) number: 15. That's a slight uptick and counts on Kittel not becoming a dominant force at Etixx right away. It also counts on Cav winning a bit early and entering enough races before and after the Olympics for him to fill his coffers. Might be a bit too high a guess. But the Olympics end early and Cav should find himself as motivated as ever, perhaps with a bit more late-season fitness than he's had in a while. There are a lot of factors in his favor and no real sign of decline, so he's a tough guy to bet against in 2016.