There was no logical reason for Geraint Thomas to be on the front of the Giro d’Italia peloton with 2km to go on the final stage. The Welshman had already all but conceded the overall win to Primož Roglič on Saturday night; the race was inside the magical 3km mark, so there would be no time lost should misfortune occur; and Ineos Grenadiers does not have a sprinter.
Logic was not at play. Thomas, who turned 37 this Giro, the veteran of 18 Grand Tours, was just trying to do something special for his compatriot, former teammate, and long-term friend Mark Cavendish, who turned 38 this Giro.
It was something special indeed. Cavendish had not yet won in 2023, since signing for Astana-Qazaqstan, and will retire at the end of 2023, so this was his final chance at the Giro. In a scene reminiscent of Bradley Wiggins riding on the front for Cavendish at the 2012 Tour de France, in the yellow jersey, Thomas took to the front, sensing that Astana needed the extra help.
2km later, Cavendish sprinted to the line from the perfect position, clear of any other riders, and triumphed in Rome, to take his first win since the British National Championships last June.
“I made the prediction [of Cavendish winning] on Watts Occuring [his podcast] so I had to make it happen, you know,” Thomas explained on GCN+ post-stage. “I was just there and I saw they only had Luis León [Sanchez] with him and I thought ‘help a brother out’.”
That turn from Thomas did not win the stage for Cavendish, his 17th Giro stage win in a storied, starry career – that was Cavendish’s final turn of speed which saw him power to victory by several bike lengths – but it did show what kind of human Thomas is. Also, how much Cavendish is valued in the peloton.
The pair first raced together two decades ago, and, remarkably, they both made it to the top of the sport and continue to be there, evidence of British cycling’s golden age, still extant.
“I’m super happy,” Cavendish said. “It was a long hard slog to get to the end of the Giro. We felt close a couple of times before. My boys did incredible, and my friends did incredible. We just had some great friends today. Long term friends. I’m pretty emotional.
“My first Grand Tour victory was in 2008 in the Giro. Down in Reggio Calabria. To win here in Rome, it’s beautiful. That’s a bucket list sprint to be able to do, outside the Coliseum. I’m so happy, so happy.”
For Cavendish, a 17th Giro stage win and a first win of 2023 must come as a great relief, he might be happy, but it is far from the final moment in the sun, that it could be for another rider. The win in Rome helps add to his reputation as the best sprinter in bike racing history, but it cannot be the end.
The only thing that matters in 2023, his final year as a professional bike rider, is one more Tour de France stage. At present, the Manxman has 34, the same number as Eddy Merckx, but just one more would drag him above the greatest rider of all time to his own little step.
That is why Astana-Qazaqstan signed him. That feels like why Cavendish is still riding, why he has raced over 50 times this season. Because of that Tour win, which could come in Nogaro, in Bordeaux, or at the last moment in Paris, as happened at the Giro.
On the evidence of Friday’s stage, Cavendish has the speed and power to win one more time at the Tour, although the level of sprinting will be undoubtedly higher on the biggest scene of them all. But as Rome showed, Cavendish is a rider for the biggest scenes.
Some extra help from some of those friends in the peloton that he has made over the past 20 years would help, but the 38-year-old has it in him to sprint to victory, as we saw on Sunday. One last time for Cavendish at the Tour. Who could rule it out?