SAINT-LO, France — Not too long ago, a successful Tour de France for Mark Cavendish meant coming away with a handful of victories.
Not anymore. And not only because German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel have taken over as cycling’s top sprinters.
“The sprint opportunities are less,” Cavendish said on Thursday, lamenting how Tour organizers have created more challenging routes in recent years with more hilly stages in the opening week, as opposed to the purely flat opening stages that the race once started with.
“In 2008, it was 18 Cat (category) 2, Cat 1 and HC (Hors Categorie, beyond category) climbs in the whole Tour de France. Last year, there was 18 in the last week. This year, there’s 28 Cat 2, Cat 1 and HC climbs,” Cavendish said. “It’s quite an increase.”
He won four stages in 2008, six in 2009, five each in 2010 and 2011, and three in 2012. But over the last three races, he has won a total of three stages, and just one last year.
While the first three stages this year – highlighted by Saturday’s scenic opening leg from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach – set up well for sprinters, the route gets hilly from the fourth day onward.
“It makes more people win, which is good for the sport but it definitely changes our approach,” Cavendish said. “You don’t go with a nine-man leadout team to the Tour de France anymore unless you’re happy with just a couple of stage wins.
“There’s a longer list of GC (general classification) contenders than there ever was. And the teams are built behind them. That makes it very difficult for the sprinters.”
The 31-year-old British rider, nicknamed the “Manx Missile,” joined South African team Dimension Data for this season after shoulder surgery in September. He withdrew during last year’s race with ruptured ligaments in his right shoulder.
Cavendish prepared for the Tour by opening his season in February, and has raced constantly to mixed results – winning one stage each in the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Croatia, and Tour of California. He finished second to Adam Blythe in the British championships last weekend.
“It’s been completely different. I used a lot of racing to build up my endurance,” Cavendish said. “I really don’t know how it’s going to be. It could be the best thing in the world. It could be the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
With 26 career stage wins in the Tour, Cavendish sits third on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx (34) and Bernard Hinault (28).
He’s aiming for early and late wins this year, especially on the concluding stage in Paris.
“The biggest stage in the world,” Cavendish said, “is the Champs-Elysees for a sprinter.”