Rejuvenated Mark Cavendish insists best is still to come as Tour of Britain returns

After his astonishing comeback to claim four stage wins and the green jersey at this year’s Tour de France, Mark Cavendish now believes he has the potential to turn the clock back 10 years and return to the form of his prime – although it is not certain that he will continue racing with the Deceuninck-Quick-Step team in 2022, with negotiations ongoing.

“At the beginning of the year I was adamant this would be my last year, [but] what I’ve gained from this year is that I don’t believe I’ll stay at this level, I believe I will get even better,” said the 36-year-old Manxman as he prepared to start the Tour of Britain, where he has won 10 stages since his first start in 2005, although he has not crossed the line first in his home Tour since 2013.

“I said at the beginning of the year I wasn’t looking for a fairytale but I’ve had a fairytale. It would be easy to say I’m done, [but] I’m still confident I’m on an upward stretch. If I didn’t believe I could get better I would stop. I’m looking at carrying on, I hope it will be with Deceuninck but I don’t know. It’s not down to me.”

Recently, the Deceuninck manager, Patrick Lefevere, said that Cavendish should not get carried away with his success at the Tour de France; in spite of the departure of the Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, the picture at the Belgian team has changed in recent weeks as the Dutch rider Fabio Jakobsen has hit form after serious injury to take three stage wins at the Vuelta a España, meaning that Cavendish is far from Lefevere’s only option for 2022.

Asked where he felt he could make progress, Cavendish said: “In the old days I never lost a race. This year I’ve won a lot, but I’ve come second and third a lot. It’s about consistently winning. I want to go back to when I didn’t lose. I should be able to win whatever race I go to.”

However, opportunities for sprint wins will be hard to find in one of the hilliest editions of the Tour of Britain since its relaunch in 2004. The race returns after two years having skipped 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and its first stage since 2019, across Cornwall, has barely a yard of flat road. Stage two takes in Dartmoor, although the run-in to Exeter is mainly downhill. Stage three is a team time trial, while stage four travels through Snowdonia before finishing up the Great Orme above Llandudno.

It is not until Thursday’s loop through Cheshire that a mass finish is likely; Cavendish mentioned that one and perhaps the final leg into Aberdeen as possible sprint finishes, “but it depends how the race goes. You need things to go in your favour, having only six riders in each team makes for a different style of racing. I’ve had good feelings in the last races, my form is good but whether it means anything at the Tour of Britain … there are limited opportunities this week.” As a result, Cavendish said he would relish the opportunity “to graft” for an overall contender such as his teammate Julian Alaphilippe, the overall winner in 2018.

After Friday’s uphill finish at Gateshead, the weekend’s stages through Scotland may prove more amenable to the heavier brethren. There is a good chance that by then either Alaphilippe or another contender for late September’s world road race championship, the Belgian Wout van Aert, will be in the race leader’s jersey.

They are joint favourites to emulate the great all-rounder, Holland’s Matthew van der Poel, the winner of the last edition back in 2019. Given that Alaphilippe is the reigning world champion and Van Aert was the silver medallist, and that their respective teams, Deceuninck-Quickstep and Jumbo-Visma, are among the strongest on the circuit, it is hard to see beyond the pair in terms of the overall title.

Both are at their best on short, sharp hills which traditionally decide the British Tour, although Van Aert’s all-round ability is such that at the Tour de France he managed an almost unheard of clean sweep of time trial, high mountain and sprint stages.

“We will take stock after the team time trial, we have ambitions for stages and the overall,” said Alaphilippe, whose other ambition is to savour the last few days racing in the rainbow jersey of world champion.

Among the other contenders, Team Ineos do field one of the brightest British talents of the moment, Ethan Hayter, who is all of 22, already has an Olympic silver medal to his name and has landed seven wins this year, which is more than most professionals manage in an entire career. There are other young prospects to watch, notably Ireland’s Ben Healy and Londoner Thomas Gloag, who ride for the Trinity Racing team.

At the other end of the age and experience spectrum, Britain will be one of the final outings in the illustrious 14-year career of Ireland’s Dan Martin, who has won stages at all three Grand Tours and should feature on at least one of the uphill finishes this week. Hayter’s teammate Richie Porte, meanwhile, is another explosive climber like Martin, and Yorkshire’s Connor Swift is currently showing fine form for the French Arkéa-Samsic team.