Sean Kelly: Mark Cavendish coming back for another Tour de France isn't the right decision

Making Grand Tours harder could encourage riders into 'doing bad things again' says former rider

Clock09:55, Tuesday 31st October 2023

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Mark Cavendish recently rode the Tour de France Singapore Criterium

Sean Kelly, the four-time green jersey winner at the Tour de France, believes that Mark Cavendish is making the wrong call after reversing his retirement decision in the hope of breaking the Tour stage win record next season.

Cavendish is currently tied with Eddy Merckx on 34 stage wins apiece and the Astana-Qazaqstan rider hoped to edge clear of the Belgian in the 2023 edition of the Tour. Unfortunately for the British sprinter, Jasper Philipsen was in dominant form before a crash took Cavendish out of the race.

In the last few weeks Cavendish has flipped on the retirement announcement he made during the Giro d’Italia in May and, at the Tour de France presentation in Paris last week, the veteran looked on as race organisers ASO unveiled the 2024 race route.

Kelly, who retired from the sport in 1994 following a glittering career on the road, empathised with Cavendish’s position and stated that, while the Manxman was unequivocally the best men’s sprinter of all time, another season of sacrifice and struggle wasn’t a decision he would have suggested.

"Well I don’t think that it’s the right decision for Cavendish to come back but he wants to go for the record," Kelly told GCN from his home in Ireland.

“If a rider is hungry and he wants the record then I can understand it but it’s hard to do all that training over the winter, and all those build-up races. Then you’ve got the young guys coming in, so I think that it’s going to be very difficult for Mark to get that stage win. I see it being very difficult."

Kelly admits that, if he was in Cavendish’s shoes, he would have walked away from the sport at the end of 2023, despite missing out on that elusive stage win. However, he rationalised that if Cavendish had the motivation and hunger, and took a victory in the Tour next year, it would make for a fairytale ending.

"But if he’s motivated, that’s what it is about. I just find it hard to see where he can have that hunger. If it was me, I wouldn’t have come back. Not after the big retirement announcement at the Giro," Kelly said.

"It’s hard for him at his age but he’s one of those amazing athletes, and he just wants to go on and go for that record. That’s his choice, and his decision, and it would be amazing to see if he could get it.

“It’s just about all the hard work. If it works out we’ll all be saying how great he is to take the record but if I was him, at his age, and in his position… he was at a super level this year before his crash. When you get to that age, it can be hard to get to that level again. He’s by far the best sprinter of all time and it’s incredible what he’s achieved in a modern Grand Tour."

Not a sprinter-friendly Tour de France

Kelly was away during the Tour de France presentation last week in Paris but over the weekend he studied the race route and highlighted the fact that there were few opportunities for the sprinters.

Mark Cavendish left the auditorium in Paris shocked by the severity of the 2024 Tour de France route, while other sprinters have been critical of the lack of chances that will come their way during the race.

There may be several stages that could end in sprints but even several of the flatter stages have severe lumps and hills included in their parcours. For Kelly, the Grand Tours have gone too far, and taken the race away from the pure sprinters, with race organisers attached to finding new innovative ways of promoting more exciting and unpredictable racing.

“From a sprinter’s point of view it’s not nice. It’s horrible,” Kelly said of the 2024 Tour de France route.

“As we’ve been hearing from a number of sprinters, it’s so difficult, but that’s nothing new. These races now seem to have something against these sprinters and in the latter years the pure sprinters don’t really have much of an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. One event wants to be better than the other, and that just makes it harder and harder.

"The organisers of these three Grand Tours, and the other races as well, just want to find these stupid, crazy, steep climbs. If you look at the Tour de France and the elevation gain on the first day, it’s not a traditional Tour, and the Giro and Vuelta have become the same. The pure sprinters, the chances for them are minimal next year in the Tour de France.

"In the future, the pure sprinters coming through will have to adjust the way that they train because if they can’t get over hills they’ll win nothing. If you go back a few years in the Tour you’d have the first week with stages guaranteed for the sprinters, with three or four for the sprinters but that’s all changed. The organisers now want to create hype but where’s it going?"

Kelly calls for UCI to limit how hard Grand Tours can be

Kelly called on the UCI to step in and monitor the evolution of Grand Tours. For Kelly, the constant pursuit of harder parcours and more climbs could have a detrimental effect on not just the quality of racing but also the credibility of the performances. According to the Irishman, tough routes could tempt struggling riders to look for shortcuts and unethical ways of making the grade.

"From a UCI point of view, maybe they need to restrict the amount of metres climbed in the first few days of a Tour because, if not, are we not going down the danger of pushing riders to the limit and doing bad things again,” Kelly told GCN.

"The guys who want to survive in the Tour de France, and who are struggling… for them if you make the race so, so difficult, and all the races are doing it, I’d be concerned with that. I think that the UCI should take on more control when it comes to limiting how hard a Grand Tour can be. The riders are professional but they’re only human, and they’re not robots.

“Making it so difficult, there are so many riders who are going to struggle to get around in those races. They’ll struggle to get around and do their jobs and if there’s an opportunity to go back to the bad years, certainly the difficulty of the races will put that thought in a lot of riders’ minds because it’s their job.

"When you become a bike rider, and you put so much work into coming up through the ranks, there are guys who want to do another four or five years. If that’s put into their minds then there’s always a risk again."

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