Last chance saloon: Why has Mark Cavendish ended up at Astana? And will it work?

The British champion has joined the sixth different team of his professional career in the hunt for one more Tour de France stage win

Mark Cavendish
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Almost three weeks into the new year, three weeks when he was effectively without a ride for 2023, Mark Cavendish was announced as an Astana-Qazaqstan rider on Tuesday.

It was practically an open secret by this point, with there being intel on Cavendish at the Kazakh team's training camp before Christmas, and just last week a snap of the British champion at Alicante airport climbing into an Astana team car emerged.

However, Tuesday's announcement on Cavendish made it official, and there is no going back now.

The reasons behind the Manx sprinter ending up at Astana-Qazaqstan are pretty clear. After the downfall of the B&B Hotels project back in December, options were thin on the ground for the 37-year-old, who wanted just one more year.

Like an ageing character in a heist movie, he is going for one last shot.

He might be one of the biggest names in the sport, a guaranteed money spinner for sponsors, and most pertinently of all, is just one win away from becoming the sole Tour de France stage win record holder, but it is still a risk.

Not only does Cavendish typically justify a pretty large remuneration (though he raced for minimum wage at Quick-Step in 2021), but he requires a team to be at least partly set up around him, and could take up opportunities that were destined for younger, promising riders, who will now be forced to work for him.

All of this means that there were vanishingly few options for him, with time running out. Once B&B was no longer viable, Israel-Premier Tech, Human Powered Health and Ineos Grenadiers were all rumoured, but all declined to take him on in the end, whether because of money, talent progression, or a lack of a guaranteed spot at the Tour, in the case of Human Powered Health.

It is not entirely dissimilar to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years, with the Portuguese forward undoubtedly still having the ability to be one of the best players in the world at times, but at the same time making the teams that he played for worse overall, stymying youth, holding up the march of progress. One only needs to glance at a Manchester United or Portugal without him to see how the absence of the 37-year-old can be a help, not a hindrance.

Like Cavendish, Ronaldo has now found another team willing to take him on. The two are now both employed by teams with links to the states where they are from; Ronaldo at Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia, Cavendish at Astana, Kazakhstan's cycling team.

Astana are not quite a Saudi Arabian football club; they still race at WorldTour level, and will give Cavendish access to the biggest races, the Tour de France above all.

Mark Cavendish

(Image credit: Astana-Qazaqstan)

The 'how' of the deal is still unclear. While Alexandr Vinokourov spoke highly of Cavendish once his availability was known, Astana are a team that have not been free of financial difficulties in recent years, and there had to be a bit of manoeuvring among the WorldTour squad and development squad to allow for Cavendish and leadout man Cees Bol to both join.

Why the move took so long to be announced is also a mystery; it might have just been a PR move, but it also might be linked to sponsor juggling or simply that Cavendish's attention was taken up with the ongoing trial of the men accused of robbing him and his family at their Essex home last year.

Whatever the reason, Cavendish has now found a WorldTour spot, something that looked doubtful a couple of months ago.

This is not the first time he has found himself in a situation like this. Two years ago, his move to what was then Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl was secured at the last minute, after a disappointing year at Bahrain-McLaren.

That hail mary, that lifeline, proved to be a coup for Quick-Step, with Cavendish taking the golden opportunity with both hands, winning those famous four stages at the 2021 Tour, taking him to 34 stage wins, equal in the record books with Eddy Merckx.

The message we learned that year was to never write him off.

However, 2023 is different to 2021. The Manxman is two years older, and at 37 is past his best years as a sprinter. Astana is no Quick-Step either; gone is the perfect leadout train, with the bunch sprint whisperer Michael Mørkøv no longer at his service.

Riders like Fabio Felline or Gianni Moscon might do a job, and Bol has specifically been brought on board to lead Cavendish out, but he will be competing against sprinters who have teams fully built around them to deliver success at Soudal Quick-Step, Bora-Hansgrohe, and Lotto-Dstny.

A new team also means a new bike. Cavendish has not been quiet in his adoration for Specialized's machines over the years, and his new Wilier 0 SLR or Filante SLR rides might not be exactly to his specifications. The sprinter has never been one to not let his exacting details be known to mechanics, so good luck to them.

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All this being said, Cavendish only needs one shot, one clear run to the line at the Tour, and anything else that happens this year will not matter. It is practically not worth consulting his results at early season races, as the only thing that matters is one sprinting opportunity on French roads this July.

He has proved before, in 2021, that he can find his own fortune, and force his way through, but for every 2021 there is a 2020, the disappointing year at Bahrain, or one of his fallow illness-hit years at Dimension Data. There is no guarantee.

2022 proved that he can win races in a different manner, as he proved at the British nationals. “Can you imagine winning a 35th Tour de France stage in the British champion's jersey? It'd be really beautiful," he said after that.

It might take a moment of inspiration, a surprise break appearance, a sprint out of nowhere, and Cavendish could be immortalised. It's possible, but will it happen? Both he and Astana are betting on it.

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