by Richard Moore in Sheffield

In Leeds last Thursday Mark Cavendish looked ahead to the Tour de France and sought to play down the importance of stage one. The Tour is 21 days, he kept saying. It doesn’t end in Harrogate.

Yet for him, sadly, it did.


Cavendish: Out before the Tour had really begun. Photograph by Simon Gill

What a great pity that arguably the greatest sprinter of all time seems destined not to enjoy the success on home roads that his talent and achievements merit, and which would befit his role as a pioneer and trailblazer.

In the Village Départ at York racecourse on Sunday morning there was an air of mourning when it was confirmed that Cavendish would not be starting stage two.

‘What a shame for Cavendish,’ said one Italian journalist, which spoke of the universal mood. His absence deprives not just British fans of their star name, but also the international audience: as the best known and most popular rider in the peloton, Cavendish is ‘box office’ in any country.

But god, he can be an awkward bugger. An absolute pain in the neck; often prickly, sometimes abrasive, he can drive us journalists crazy, and sometimes goes too far – stealing a reporter’s recorder during last year’s Tour, or mumbling so we can’t hear what he says. (I am convinced this is deliberate.)

But god, we will miss him when he is gone.

This Tour will give us a taste of what that will eventually be like. It might be easier and more relaxed, without those stressful encounters and awkward press conferences, but it won’t be as interesting. Whether he is winning or losing there is never a dull moment with Cavendish around. And there is always a story.

It is quite rare that an athlete is acclaimed as the greatest of all time while he is still competing. The tennis player Roger Federer is an exception. Cavendish is another. He is the greatest ever sprinter, unbeatable for five years, from 2008 to 2012, and still at least the second fastest in the world.

No doubt Cavendish will always regret his missed opportunities on home soil: in Canterbury in his debut Tour in 2007, in London at the 2012 Olympic road race, and now Harrogate in the 2014 Tour. But these should be filed away as ‘personal disappointments’ rather than as blots on his record, or permanent stains on his eventual legacy.

Let’s not make the schoolboy error of writing him off yet, anyway. The ultimate test of the champion is how he responds to setbacks, and to the challenge of emerging youth.

Kittel is to Cavendish what Rafael Nadal was to Federer, with the 2008 Wimbledon final apparently representing the changing of the guard when Nadal overpowered Federer over five sets. That was six years ago. Thirty-one-year old Federer was back at Wimbledon on Sunday, playing his ninth final (and as I write he has just won the first set).

Cavendish is 29 and should have some good years and major wins left. Which means another few years of awkward press conferences and stressful interviews, punctuated by long silences when you can almost hear him thinking ‘What kind of fucking stupid question is that?’

I look forward to those as much as I look forward to the petrol station sandwiches I’ll be surviving on for the next three weeks. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.