Astana go all in on Cavendish in his final season, but will the confidence pay off?

The Kazakh team have bet big on the 38-year-old sprinter. Both they and Cavendish need 2024 to work

Mark Cavendish
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The year is 2024 and Mark Cavendish is still winning bike races. The men he beat in his first major win, at Scheldeprijs in 2007 - almost 17 years ago - have all retired, most of them years ago. The list of riders he pipped to the post in that race look to be from a different age. Careers of people like Peter Sagan and Thibaut Pinot have come and gone, yet Cavendish is still plugging away, sprinting for the line, tasting victory.

Like Jimmy Anderson, the 41-year-old English fast bowler who is still raging against the dying of the light, five away from 700 test wickets, he continues, at 38. Both men are already the greatest in their field, not arguably, but absolutely, and still they plough on. 

Cavendish needs one more Tour de France stage win to reach immortality, just as Anderson needs five more wickets to make history, but both have nothing to prove. Cavendish is the greatest sprinter of all time, and yet he yearns to complete the project.

The 38-year-old came so close to that crucial stage win at the Tour in Bordeaux last summer, for his chain to jump and deny him his perfect farewell. At the scene of the near-miss, it felt like the opportunity. A crash soon after stopped his pupported last year in its tracks, and forced him and Astana to add one more final year to his career.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Astana-Qazaqstan rider in the world of British cycling. His win at the Tour Colombia last Friday, a race Cycling Weekly would ordinarily barely cover at all, saw me commissioning a story and editing from the pub. The thirst for Cavendish news is such that it demands to be published. It’s hard to imagine another rider to whom a stage win at a 2.1 stage race on the other side of the world would require this kind of action. Cavendish is special. A world without him cycling is a scary one.

His team knows he’s special. To that end, Astana-Qazaqstan have bet heavily on his success this year. They’ve added to his leadout train, recruiting Michael Mørkøv and Davide Ballerini, among others, and sent him to altitude training early in the year. They’ve also brought in his old coach from Quick-Step, Vasilis Anastopoulos, and seemingly changed tack fully to a sprint team.

It’s an interesting approach from a team which has a history of targeting general classification, and one which has struggled for UCI points too. We stand halfway through the latest WorldTour cycle and squads like Astana need results to ward off the likes of Lotto-Dstny and Israel-Premier Tech overtaking them. The team in blue was bottom of the WorldTour table last year, and picking up GC results and high positions in one-day races are the way to move up; sprints in stage races are not.

However, the Cavendish project, chasing that final Tour stage win, brings more than UCI points. It is a narrative, a chance to make history, and that seemingly means more. Why else would Astana give him a contract extension and remodel their team? It is all for one goal.

On the evidence of the Colombian win, Astana are ready and firing, but bigger tests will come, starting with the UAE Tour next week. A victory or even a podium against some of the current crop of top sprinters would point to a successful year, and start pointing the narrative in the right direction. Success breeds success.

A Tour stage win takes a lot more than some time at altitude and a solid leadout train, however, it needs Cavendish at his peak and a solid dose of fortune, too. Cavendish was there last year, but the luck wasn’t. 2024 needs to be different for both him and his team.

Cavendish is searching for one more result, but Astana require a lot more from him than that. A win on day four is a start, but consistency will be key to a crucial year. The Kazakh team have gone all in on the Missile, and now they just need to beat the house.

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