How do I sprint a stage in the Tour de France? Yes, you have to be able to send the watts down the home straight, to jostle with your fellows and avoid, if possible, licking the asphalt. Otherwise, you can also sign in the Quick-Step team and get dropped off with your eyes almost closed by Michael Morkov.
To try it is to adopt it and win. Ask Fabio Jakobsen. After Elia Viviani, Sam Bennett and Mark Cavendish, the Dutchman was placed in orbit by this Saturn rocket designed in Denmark in 1985 to raise his arms on the Tour de France. After his victory in Nyborg, Jakobsen will take the wheel of the “local” to try to win in Sonderborg, arrival city of the 3rd stage.
Year-round, the Dutchman “shares” Morkov’s services with Cavendish, to whom he was preferred for this 2022 Tour. And the two swear by him. “I’m flattered that Mark and Fabio say they want to run with me, confesses to World this solid baby of 1.83 meters. In the team, we have always had several good sprinters, it’s our DNA and I got used to working for one or the other. »
Happiness at work is possible, the Dane says he has been swimming in it since he found, late in life, his vocation as “pilot fish”, this role between shadow and light, this job as an ultra-specialized worker responsible for reassemble, place and launch his sprinter in the last kilometer. Today, Morkov put the whole peloton in agreement. In his genre, he is the best but has no desire to set up on his own.
More of his age. To tell the truth, Michael Morkov is not a sprinter converted into a pilot fish, like most of his colleagues. In 2012, the Tour discovered him as a breakaway hunter and even wearer of the jersey of… best climber for six days. “I was at Saxo-Bank and we found ourselves at the last moment without a leader after the Contador steak story. Suspended for doping, the Spaniard had tried to explain – without convincing – the presence of clenbuterol in his urine by the consumption of a sirloin of veal.
At the time, Morkov rode for the “Pistolero” and did not have much opportunity to make his small burst of speed speak for the service of another. “I turned pro at Saxo thanks to Bjarne Riis. He was not very interested in having a sprinter and the team was focused on the general classifications. »
His Vuelta stage victory in 2013 does not change his professional horizons. Without formulating it, this track specialist feels that he is at odds with this role of “team member of all trades”. In 2016, Alexander Kristoff offered him to join his “train” within the Katusha formation. Initially, Morkov was just one of the “wagons” before becoming the Norwegian’s official pilot fish.
An Olympic champion
The beginnings are delicate however, but the student learns quickly. Studious, he sees and reviews all the possible sprints available on YouTube. “I wanted to understand this role this pilot fish. I was studying the way Mark Renshaw took Mark [Cavendish], when he produced his effort, how he adapted according to the wind, the width of the road. I felt that I had good potential for this role, with my qualities as a track rider. »
In the streets of Copenhagen, this father of two children is also mainly challenged as the American Olympic champion in 2021 with his compatriot Lasse Norman Hansen. “In Denmark, I think my career will always be summed up in Tokyo and as such, rather than my role as a teammate,” he said. Both on the track and on the road, Morkov has a higher than average sprint IQ for him, with an ability to analyze the situation in a tenth of a second and immediately adapt to it.
“I really believe in this idea that each arrival has its story,” says the 30-year-old. It’s about finding the right solution to place your leader, feeling which team is going to take things in hand or if it’s us. When, in the 1990s, Mario Cipollini asked his teammates to clear a wide Roman road for him before letting go of the horses, the Quick-Step often preferred to appear in the last three kilometers to take advantage of the work of others.
Michael Morkov knows his mission. He lets teammate Kasper Asgreen fire a stretch to put his team back in front; him, asks his sprinter of the day to keep his wheel and above all to trust him. ” It’s essential. In the heat of the moment, you have to not ask questions and let it be instinctive, he explains. Sometimes I feel like I have to drop it 250 yards from the line or 150 yards. But, in certain situations, my role may change. When Mark [Cavendish] won the 4th stage in Fougères last year, there was still a breakaway rider and the sprint was not organized at all, I had to put him back at 500 meters and then let him manage by himself. »
“In the wheel of Morkov, even I can win”
This alchemy, Morkov maintains it by a constant exchange with his sprinters. “I spend a lot of time chatting with Mark, Fabio and even the other train riders, it’s real teamwork. With Cavendish, the connection goes back much longer. The two have known each other, faced each other but appreciated on the track during the American events or the points race. “I had the opportunity to be in the wheel of Morkov, and even I can win,” quips the Isle of Man sprinter after a stage win at the Tour of Belgium in June after almost four seasons of hassle.
In March, Morkov almost missed adding Milan-Turin to his list, which also boasted two Danish championship titles. That day, Cavendish only has to stand up on his pedals 50 meters from the line to take the Italian semi-classic. His pilot fish finished 7th freewheeling. In his darkest dreams, does he imagine a Gert Steegmans scenario?
In 2007, the Belgian from the Quick-Step “forgot” to cut his effort and won the 2nd stage of the Tour de France in Gent ahead of his leader, Tom Boonen. “I remember this episode, I was in front of my TV,” smiled Morkov. It’s a great story and it could have happened to me in other races, but not in the Tour, honestly. And then I don’t think about it at all, I’m just focused on my teamwork and happy to do it. Victory by proxy suits him very well.