Mark Cavendish keeps his promise in race of his life

The Guardian‘s RICHARD WILLIAMS puts an eloquent case for Mark Cavendish as the 2011 SJA Sportsman of the Year

Mark Cavendish savours the moment he won the road race world title

“We’ve established Great Britain as the dominant force in world cycling,” Mark Cavendish said  an hour after his historic achievement of becoming world champion in the men’s road race outside Copenhagen. His triumph was yet more evidence of the slow, steady but apparently unstoppable progress made in the two decades since Chris Boardman won Olympic gold in the Barcelona velodrome.

Graeme Obree, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley, Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Romero are some of the riders whose feats have helped to fuel Britain’s cycling boom, which saw a couple of million spectators lining the streets for the Tour de France in London four years ago and has made bike shops around the country virtually recession‑proof. Now Cavendish, who cruelly missed out on glory in the Beijing Olympics, has pulled off something so exceptional that it must finally cement his position in the British sporting pantheon.

As if 20 Tour stage wins (including three on the Champs-Elysées), the green jersey, stage wins in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, the Vuelta’s points jersey and victory in the Milan-San Remo classic two years ago were not enough, Cavendish still found himself, only a few weeks ago, sitting on a breakfast TV sofa and being asked if he rode his bike to the shops. They will have to take him seriously now.

The rainbow jersey of the road‑race champion is properly venerated in the old cycling nations of Italy, France, Belgium Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. It has never meant a great deal to the British public, whose appreciation of cycling is largely limited to the great French race that wends its way around the favoured holiday landmarks of Brittany, Provence and the Languedoc. Among Britain’s men, only Tom Simpson had previously won it, in 1965, two years before his death. The women have done better: the great Beryl Burton won it twice, in 1960 and 1967, and Mandy Jones captured it on home turf at Goodwood in 1982. Then came Cooke, whose success in 2008 followed her Olympic gold medal.

Now, given the sport’s greater visibility, perhaps the public will come to recognise that nothing, not even a yellow jersey in Paris, stands higher among cycling’s achievements than a race rendered unusually demanding by its length, by the division of the riders into national rather than trade teams (and the horsetrading that sometimes results from that unfamiliar arrangement), and by an all-or-nothing commitment that pervades the day.

It took remarkable planning and phenomenal devotion – hallmarks of British Cycling under Peter Keen and Dave Brailsford – to win Sunday’s race. “Even three years ago we’d have struggled to put in such a strong squad,” Geraint Thomas said afterwards. “We could easily have sat back and ambled a bit and let the other teams ride but this was our race and we wanted to give it everything.”

The key, for more than 200km, was using Chris Froome and Steve Cummings to ride at the front of the peloton, keeping the tempo high but ignoring the temptation to chase breaks by the seven men who went off early and eventually opened a gap of eight minutes, or by the half-dozen who followed them up the road with 150km to go. With David Millar as their road captain, the British riders remained patient and resolute.

They had hoped for the assistance of other teams interested in ensuring that the race would finish with a bunch sprint but only Germany came forward on the day. Bert Grabsch and Andreas Klier worked hard in the first half of the race but by the time the race entered its final stages the British riders were being forced to sail under their own steam. “We thought: ‘We’ll do it alone if we have to’,” Millar said, and a fine sight it was as seven of them lined out at the head of the peloton, sucking power from their rivals’ legs.

Individual attacks in the closing laps from the likes of Giovanni Visconti and Thomas Voeckler were ground to dust by the British machine. Only the denouement remained uncertain, until the last shred of doubt was removed by Cavendish’s blistering pace over the final 200 metres.

“We were only worried that we might run out of bodies,” Cavendish said. “You can only sit there and hope that the guys are going to ride out of their skins, and that’s what they did. Bradley Wiggins won the silver medal in the time trial on Wednesday but he rode the whole of the last lap on the front.”

Cavendish, centre, in his world champion's rainbow jersey, with his gold medal

Wiggins had warned that, if Cavendish really wanted to win, he was going to have to produce the sort of performance with which he won Milan-San Remo – “the ride of his life”. Cavendish obliged and for this pair the triumph perhaps represented a final rapprochement after their very public falling-out during the 2008 Olympics, when Cavendish stormed empty-handed away from the velodrome in the belief that Wiggins, already with two Beijing golds in his baggage, had let him down in the two‑man Madison event.

No one let anyone down on Sunday. “It was daunting,” Millar said, “but everybody did their job even more than we expected.” The Scot had been sharing a room with Cavendish in the team hotel. “What can you say about Cav? He’s a funny little bastard. We’ve watched every race together in our room and every time we’ve watched a finish he’s been off his bed, shouting: ‘I promise I’m going to win on Sunday’.”

The most impulsive and emotional of men but the most cold-blooded of athletes when the fires of competition are at their fiercest, Cavendish would be keeping his end of the bargain.

This is an edited version of an article first published in The Guardian, republished with permission.