By Ian Parker, PA
Mark Cavendish’s switch to the Astana Qazaqstan team has at long last been confirmed in a move which keeps alive his hopes of making more Tour de France history.
The 37-year-old’s future had been up in the air since French ProTour squad B&B Hotels-KTM – with whom Cavendish had reportedly agreed terms – failed to secure new sponorship in early December and was forced to close its doors.
Astana quickly made known their interest in signing the Manxman, but although the reigning British champion was photographed close to their training camp in Spain shortly before Christmas, no announcement had been made until now.
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) January 17, 2023
Cavendish’s one-year contract will give him the chance to claim the Tour stage wins record outright after he moved level with Eddy Merckx on 34 in 2021.
The Kazakh team is managed by former pro Alexandr Vinokurov, who tested positive for blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France and served a ban.
“I am really excited for this adventure,” Cavendish said. “I raced with Alexandr Vinokurov for many years, and now I’m racing with his two boys! I remember when they were children the same age as my own, dreaming to be bike racers.
“Astana Qazaqstan Team is going to be a great place to be successful, with a strong team led by Alexandr, a champion on the bike and a gentleman off the bike. I’ve enjoyed a long career already, but the joy of riding my bike and the hunger to continue winning are as bright as ever.
“So I’m looking forward to being part of a successful team, whether working with the team for wins, crossing the line first myself, or cheering on my teammates. As always, the objective will be for us to stand on the top podium.”
— Astana Qazaqstan Team (@AstanaQazTeam) January 17, 2023
Given the last-minute signing of Cavendish – confirmed after the WorldTour season had already begun at the Tour Down Under earlier in the day – it remains to be seen where he fits in the overall plans of the Astana team, but the Tour will surely be at the centre of his ambitions.
Speaking last June after claiming the British title for a second time, Cavendish said: “Can you imagine winning a 35th Tour de France stage in the British champion’s jersey? It’d be really beautiful.”
Leadout man Cees Bol has also joined Astana, who have not had much sprinting pedigree in the past but who are adjusting their own roster following the retirement of Vincenzo Nibali and the sacking of Miguel Angel Lopez because of alleged connections to a doctor under investigation for doping.
“The arrival of a top sprinter in our team is kind of challenge for us, but we are ready for it,” Vinokurov said. “We see new ways and new possibilities.
“The goals however are still the same – victories in any kind of race: Classics, stages in different stage races and, of course, in the Grand Tours. Mark still has a big desire to win and we are going to support this feeling with all our forces in all kind of races.”
In 2021, Cavendish was given a contract lifeline by Deceuninck-QuickStep after several years dogged by injury and illness.
He then stepped in as a late replacement for the injured Sam Bennett in the Tour and went on to win four stages, bringing him level with Merckx’s all-time record, which had stood since 1975.
But Cavendish, who also won the green jersey for the second time in his career, was left off the Tour squad in favour of Dutch sprinter Fabio Jakobsen 12 months later as team boss Patrick Lefevere made clear the Manxman’s contract would not be extended.