Mark Cavendish appeared to signal the end of his remarkable career could be imminent as he struggled to hold back the tears after Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
The 35-year-old former world champion, winner of 30 Tour de France stages and many other races besides, was emotional after the cobbled classic, which was won by Mads Pedersen.
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“That’s perhaps the last race of my career,” Cavendish said in a video published by Belgian broadcaster Sporza.
The Manxman, who had also been selected for Scheldeprijs this coming Wednesday, then rode away without answering any further questions.
His comments came only a day after Bahrain-McLaren team principal Rod Ellingworth had indicated talks with Cavendish about a contract extension were ongoing, saying he was confident the 2011 world champion would race on in 2021.
Cavendish joined Bahrain-McLaren last winter on a one-year deal, reuniting with Ellingworth who had coached him at the start of his career. However, the coronavirus pandemic severely restricted his ability to make any kind of impact.
A rider who has suffered with the effects of the Epstein-Barr virus as well as a series of injuries in recent years needed racing to get his best form back, but instead saw the season shut down for several months.
That lack of racing was cited when Cavendish was not selected for the Tour de France in August as he said he did not feel ready to compete.
Cavendish’s comments on Sunday could yet prove to be post-race emotion after a tough day in Flanders, but if the end is nearing, it will bring down the curtain for a man widely considered to be the best sprinter the sport has ever seen.
Cavendish turned professional on the road in 2005, and took 11 wins in his debut season.
His first Tour appearance in 2007 ended prematurely after early crashes, but he returned to the race in 2008 to begin what would turn into several years of outright domination in the sprints as he won four stages that year, then six in 2009.
Aside from his world title and 30 Tour victories, Cavendish has won 15 stages of the Giro d’Italia and three in the Vuelta a Espana, while also taking a Monument victory when he won Milan-Sanremo in 2009.
Cavendish has also enjoyed much success on the track, highlighted by his three world titles in the Madison, two of them won in partnership with Sir Bradley Wiggins.
The last of his Tour victories came in 2016, the same year as his final Madison world title, and Cavendish has struggled to replicate earlier successes since as the Epstein-Barr virus – first diagnosed in 2017 – took its toll and a series of crashes added to the setbacks.