- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- One glance at the maps that make up the road bible for the Tour of California was all it took for many people to conclude that the opening stage would belong to Mark Cavendish.
The 104.3-mile mile trek from Nevada City to Sacramento was one of perhaps two or three stages in the eight-day race guaranteed to end in a bunch sprint. A victory would put the dynamic young Brit and his California-based HTC-Columbia team in the overall lead. And winning would be good medicine for Cavendish, whose winter was marked by an excruciating toothache and early season has been somewhat of a headache.
The hardest feat in sports is doing what's expected of you, repeatedly. Yet when Cavendish crossed the line first and raised his arms Sunday, there was a sense of near-inevitability about it.
His team went to the front on the second of four circuits around the state capitol and, with its usual telepathic efficiency, kept Cavendish well clear of a crash that took down several prominent riders. Mark Renshaw, the explosive Australian lead-out man nicknamed "Prince Harry" by his teammates for his resemblance to the British royal, then delivered the current speed king to the part of the course where few can challenge him.
Cavendish said he had to go full throttle into a slight headwind to beat out Saxo Bank's Juan Jose Haedo of Argentina, whose reaction was later relayed to reporters by a race official. "It's not as easy to beat Mark Cavendish as it looks on TV," Haedo was said to have said. Frankly, it didn't look simple on the small screen either, because it's not one man who needs to be slain but a many-headed dragon. Like baseball infielders working behind an ace pitcher, Cavendish's crew is fueled by the confidence that its efforts will result in the right outcome many more times than not.
"He makes everyone grow a few percent," said assistant team director Brian Holm, a Dane who rode in the pro peloton for 13 years and finished the Tour de France seven times. "I don't know how he does it, but he handles the pressure better than anyone I've ever met."
Great sprinters have the ability to convert their stress and others' into positive energy. He who hesitates is truly lost in this game. But there was some extra stress on Cavendish coming into this race, some self-induced, some out of his control, and there was some relief in Holm's voice.
After two years of almost uninterrupted success, the 24-year-old Cavendish has encountered some gravel on the road in 2010. He had dental surgery over the winter and developed an infection that delayed the start of his season. He crashed and suffered all day in the Milan-San Remo classic, not even getting a sniff of defending the title that was his most impressive single victory last year.
Frustrated with what he perceived to be harsh judgment by fans and the press, Cavendish made an obscene gesture after taking his second win of the year at a stage of the Tour of Romandie. The team promptly pulled him from the race.
"It was for his own good,'' said team owner Bob Stapleton, whose deep affection for Cavendish is clear. "There was a serious risk of additional sanctions if we didn't act. It was completely no drama. We had a very short discussion about it. I completely stand behind him. He's the kind of guy who has to make his own mistakes to evolve."
As fast as Cavendish can pedal a bike, his life has moved even faster, and sometimes it laps him. He dedicated his 2009 autobiography "Boy Racer" to a longtime girlfriend but had parted ways with her by the time the book came out. His younger brother was recently convicted of trafficking marijuana and cocaine, and the shock left Cavendish remorseful about not spending more time with his family and childhood friends on the Isle of Man, a ruggedly beautiful outpost that lies in the waters between Great Britain and Ireland.
Cavendish can be an extraordinarily articulate and engaging interview, disinclined to tell people what they want to hear. He fights the notion that he ever should.
"I think about what I say," he told a couple of American reporters the day before the race, talking deliberately around a peppermint hard candy he'd just popped into his mouth. "I'm always thinking."
These days, he's thinking about paying less attention to what's said and written about him in cyberspace, realizing how much of a drain it can be.
"Like, listen to this," Cavendish said emphatically. "You can't get more -- what's the word? Not ironic. Hypocritical. How can you get more hypocritical than some person using a pseudonym, who goes somewhere where there's a news article, or a blog or a forum or whatever, and publicly gives their opinion for what an [expletive] I am for publicly giving my opinion. You know what I mean?"
HTC-Columbia has two top sprinters in Cavendish and Andre Greipel of Germany, who is currently toiling in the Giro d'Italia. Greipel hasn't hidden his desire to start the Tour de France, where Cavendish has won 10 stages in the last two editions, and Cavendish has been similarly candid in assessing their respective talents -- i.e., he sees it as no contest.
Yet Cavendish is quick to dispel speculation that he wishes Greipel anything but well in the Giro. "He's my teammate," Cavendish said. "I breathe yellow, green and white. If my team can succeed, I like that." Sunday, he said he expects to contribute to HTC-Columbia's goal to get team leader Michael Rogers of Australia onto the Tour of California podium.
Green is the hue paramount on Cavendish's mind this season. He covets the jersey of that color that is awarded to the man who accumulates the most overall points in the Tour de France, chiefly by winning sprints. A relegation for interference in one stage last year cost Cavendish the chance to duke it out with Norway's Thor Hushovd. Cavendish is also canting his preparation more to the second half of 2010 because he has his sights set on the world championships.
"He grew up as a cycling fan, and he really prizes that rainbow jersey," Stapleton said.
Cavendish may be an alpha dog, but he never, ever fails to thank his pack after a win. He still seems to marvel at how the moving parts mesh.
"Doing the same thing over and over again and not making a mistake -- maybe it's our fault for making it look so easy," he said. "This is a once-in-a-generation team."
With a one-in-a-million personality front and center.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
After a slow and somewhat turbulent start to 2010, Mark Cavendish was back at home Sunday at the Tour of California, sprinting to the finish.