When there's a sprint, there's Cavendish

CLOVIS, Calif. -- As usual, the final sprint was a kaleidoscope of sinew and spokes and color, too congested and crazy to make sense of with the naked eye, too close to call until you saw a couple of replays. According to Mark Cavendish, the result was also inevitable.

The Team Columbia-High Road rider was front and center in the pack that charged down a straightaway toward the finish line in Wednesday's Stage 4 of the Tour of California in a cloud of yellow chalk dust. Kids had been drawing on the course for hours, and the residue of their artwork got kicked up by the official race cars that preceded the cyclists. The haze looked like the daytime version of a smoke and light display at a rock concert, and Cavendish -- his eyes invisible behind mirrored goggles and his body and bike forming a single sprung arrow -- was a flashy lead guitarist trying to out-solo some other gifted performers.

In the final split-second, Belgian star Tom Boonen thrust his bike forward and appeared to catch Cavendish, but the 22-year-old British sensation had already raised one arm in an ever-so-slightly premature celebration.

"There was only gonna be one outcome," Cavendish said, since lead-out man Mark Renshaw had escorted him into perfect position. Pressed later on whether he actually expects to win every time he's in a similar situation, Cavendish paused, grinned and said, "Well, yeah."

"Some people think I have a reputation for being cocky or arrogant, but I think I'm just a realist," he said. "I'm the first to say when I'm bad at something, but I'm also the first to say when I think I'm good at something. My goals are my goals, not dreams. They're targets.

"I'm under no illusions that I'm the strongest rider, and I'm not the best tactically. What I need is to be put in the best position. Sheer speed in the last 200 meters -- I think it's unrivalled."

In fact, Cavendish is not at all stuck on himself. He is one of the brightest young personalities in the peloton, with intelligence, disarming directness and composure as impressive as his blistering athletic ability, along with a keen sense of appreciation for the teamwork involved in his glory. "He's an interesting juxtaposition of productive insecurity and productive confidence," said team owner Bob Stapleton.

The 115.8-mile stage was oddly -- if scenically -- constructed, climbing snow-lined roads up to nearly 4,000 feet of elevation in the Sierras, then flattening out for the last 20 miles. Cavendish said he hadn't expected to make it over the hills in very good shape, but Columbia protected him, helped close the gap on the predictable breakaway and catapulted him into place for the finale.

Wednesday's developments did not affect the top of the overall standings as contenders finished together in the main peloton. Levi Leipheimer tops the field, 24 seconds ahead of Cavendish's Aussie team leader Michael Rogers. Astana's Lance Armstrong remains in fourth place, 34 seconds behind. Armstrong had an uneventful day on the road but got exciting news off the police blotter as his stolen time-trial bike was recovered in Sacramento.

Cavendish was born and still resides on the Isle of Man (pop. 80,000), a stubbornly independent 221-square-mile outpost in the Irish Sea roughly equidistant from Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool, and at least three hours from anywhere by ferryboat. The craggy green island, a "Crown dependency" that is technically not part of the United Kingdom, has the world's oldest continuously functioning parliament and, fittingly for the ancestral home of a sprinter, no speed limits on most of its roads.

This native son's first pursuit of excellence came in ballroom and Latin dance competition, which helped him gain the extraordinary balance needed to negotiate in tight quarters at high velocity. He took up BMX racing when he was 12, road and track cycling shortly afterward and began destroying the competition as a junior.

The 5-foot-9 Cavendish has a cherub's face, a wrestler's build and the operating philosophy of a meticulous, task-oriented CEO. He's also a romantic who will marry his girlfriend of eight years, Melissa Phillips, this fall. The two are renovating a 200-year-old converted stone barn Cavendish spotted just before he turned pro three seasons ago. He used to drive up to it, sit outside and scheme about buying it. Then he did, which seems to be his regular pattern.

"With the British [national] team, we have a psychologist," Cavendish told ESPN.com. "He tells the riders to visualize winning. He trains them to do that. I've done that all my life anyway, naturally. I'll never, ever live off what I've done. Once I reach a target, I set another one directly. I live off what I've failed at. Targets I've failed at haunt me forever."

There can't be too many ghosts rattling around Cavendish's head these days. Stage victories Wednesday and Thursday pushed his precocious career win total to 32 and helped compensate for a malfunction in Columbia's normally ultra-efficient sprint set-up earlier in the week.

"I didn't sleep last night,'' he told ESPN.com Wednesday. "If it doesn't go how I want it to, there's self-loathing, self-criticism. People don't see that. They only see the elation when I do win, and that's the only thing that gets projected. You can take it the wrong way."

The win also apparently made up for something that has rankled Cavendish since last year. He was initially declared the winner of Stage 6 in the 2008 Tour of California, only to be docked 20 seconds for what officials said was an illegal draft off a team car earlier that day when Cavendish was trying to rejoin the peloton after a crash.

You'd think that old disappointment would have been long buried by Cavendish's avalanche of success over the past 12 months, including four stage wins at the 2008 Tour de France. Think again. "Hopefully, this time they won't take it away from me," he quipped at the finish line.

Just try. The longer Cavendish rides, the firmer the grip he has on what it takes to win, and that's a scary prospect for any sprinter in his generation.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.