WEST YORKSHIRE’S Scott Thwaites is to make his Tour de France debut.
The Steeton 27-year-old has been named in Team Dimension Data’s line-up for the race alongside Mark Cavendish, who will attempt to become the most prolific stage-winner in Tour de France history.
The news regarding Cavendish, while expected, is still a gamble as the 32-year-old sprinter only returned to training six weeks ago, having contracted the Epstein-Barr virus earlier this year.
Best known as the cause of glandular fever, the virus has effectively wiped out the first half of his season, although Cavendish did claim a second place in the final stage of the Tour of Slovenia earlier this month.
Also included in the South African-based team’s Tour party is Steve Cummings, another rider who has missed much of this season, having broken his collarbone, scapula and sternum in a serious crash in April.
The 36-year-old made a remarkable return at the weekend’s National Road Championships in the Isle of Man, claiming a rare time trial and road race double.
Before Cummings, the last man to achieve that feat was David Millar in 2007 and the manner in which he won Sunday’s road race suggests his late-blooming career may have a few more highlights after his Tour stage wins in 2015 and 2016, as well as last year’s Tour of Britain victory.
For the 27-year-old Thwaites, this is just reward for his consistency, versatility and much-improved climbing, and with three British riders in their ranks, Team Dimension Data match UK-based Team Sky’s trio of domestic talent: Chris Froome, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas.
But it is Cavendish’s return to front-line action that will attract the most attention, particularly after his showing in last year’s race when he confounded those who thought he was a fading force to win four more stages.
Cavendish said: “As has been widely reported, it’s been a difficult few months for me on the back of the illness that set me back earlier on in the season.
“Despite this setback and my lack of race time, I’ve worked incredibly hard both to ensure I could firstly recover from the illness as well as then aiming to build my fitness up as much as possible in order to start the Tour.
“If I am being totally honest, had this not been the Tour de France we may have collectively taken a different approach with regards to my inclusion but I feel that I owe it to myself, the team, our sponsors and most importantly to the Tour itself given its history and everything that it stands for - as well as the emotional attachment I have for it - to give it my best and to put everything I have into trying to help the team.”
When Cavendish talks about helping the team, he means winning stages.
Those four wins in 2016, which could have been more had he not retired from the race to focus on his bid for a track medal at the Rio Olympics, took him to 30 overall, four behind the great Eddy Merckx.
Another victory would also see him take third place on his own in terms of stage wins in cycling’s three Grand Tours - the Giro, Tour and Vuelta - behind Merckx and Italy’s Mario Cipollini, the great sprinter of the generation before Cavendish’s.
This year’s race, the Tour’s 104th edition, offers the most sprinter-friendly route in memory, with some pundits predicting there could be as many as nine bunch gallops to the line.
Cavendish won two of the first three stages last year but has in the past grown stronger as the race develops, so will not be too disheartened if he fails to click in the first few days.
He will also travel to the start in Dusseldorf confident in his team’s ability to put him in the right places, as the rest of the team is comprised of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernie Eisel, Serge Pauwels, Mark Renshaw, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and Jaco Venter.
Boasson Hagen’s power in the last three kilometres was a key factor in Cavendish’s success last year, while his partnership with lead-out man Renshaw is one of the most famous in recent cycling history.
Cavendish’s main rivals in the sprints will be German duo Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, French trio Nacer Bouhanni, Bryan Coquard and Arnaud Demare, with Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan desperate to add stage wins to the green jerseys he has been piling up for his all-round consistency.