The rise of Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel became clear during a Tour de France which saw Cavendish battle through a series of dramas while seeing Peter Sagan comfortably defend the green jersey Cavendish coveted.
The Manxman will take issue with anyone who dismisses his two stage wins as a disappointment - it was his lowest tally bar the 2007 Tour he abandoned - but the sight of younger rivals pulling away from Cavendish in the final metres of sprint finishes was an almost unprecedented one, bringing into focus unfamiliar tests for the 28-year-old.
"This has been the first year that I've been really challenged," he told Press Association Sport.
"It's made me realise I'm getting old and I've got to work on stuff I haven't had to work on before."
Cavendish does not sit ready with a list of excuses, but he can offer some reasons for his inability to rival the likes of Kittel in situations where he was once untouchable.
Crashes cost him dear in the Tour, as did a virus in the early days of the event, while he also points out that those who had joined him in a Giro d'Italia-Tour double were off the pace in France.
"I still believe I'm the most dominant sprinter," he added. "Every rider who rode the Giro then didn't perform particularly well in the Tour and it speaks volumes that I was on antibiotics as well.
"The week after the Tour I was fine again not only in my results but also my sensations. In the Tour I just didn't feel on it. In the past I've been able to win when I'm not on it but now I can't afford that."
If the Giro cost him in the Tour, it appears a price worth paying looking back at his season overall.
He claimed the red jersey as the points leader in Italy, the final points jersey he needed for a full set from the Grand Tours, and believes the race marked the point where he and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mates first clicked following his winter move from Team Sky.
"It was the point at which it all finally worked together and we found the glue that bonded us together as a team," said Cavendish.
"It was the moment we started performing together as a team, and then in the Tour I won two stages and the team won four.
"I'm very happy (with the season) considering I was joining a new team and I had to work my way in and build a functioning team around me.
"We were very successful in terms of the number of races we won as a team and this was one of the most successful seasons in my career. I was the rider in the peloton who won the most stages."
Cavendish's dream at the start of the season had been to wear yellow after the opening stage of the Tour, but the chaos caused by the Orica GreenEdge team bus's crash put paid to that.
However, he will get another, potentially more poignant, chance to wear cycling's most famous piece of kit next summer when the Tour's opening stage finishes with what should be a sprint finish in his mother's home town of Harrogate.
Cavendish is planning to recce the course in the coming weeks as he prepares for a season which could see Omega Pharma spread their wings.
This year, outside of the Classics, the Belgian team put almost all their resources into getting Cavendish stage wins - exactly what he was looking for after a year of frustration with the general classification-minded Team Sky - but the signing of Colombian Rigoberto Uran from his old employers suggests the GC will soon be a target for Omega Pharma too.
Cavendish is not concerned as he points instead to the signing of his old HTC-Highroad lead-out man Mark Renshaw.
"I'm very, very excited for next year," he said. "I'm incredibly proud to be part of the team that won the most races this year and to be in the top positions in the GC and the Classics is exactly where Rigoberto comes in.
"I think we'll be a much stronger team. Rigoberto and my schedules shouldn't clash too much so we've got a very strong team for next year. The guys around me knitted closely and we've got some great additions in people like Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi. I'm super excited to go into races with that firepower."