Observer Sport Monthly, 23 November 2008
The Forgotten Man
If he had won gold in Beijing, this year's hero of the Tour de France would have been on his way to becoming the greatest British cyclist ever. But Mark Cavendish didn't. Overshadowed by his Olympic team-mates, the outspoken sprinter says he is 'bitter' and 'distraught' - and explains why he will never return to the track. By Tim Lewis
On their way home from Beijing, our Olympic heroes were rewarded with an upgrade from British Airways; anyone with a gold or silver medal would be allocated a Club World seat, while Chris Hoy, Rebecca Adlington and Bradley Wiggins would fly in first-class. One man who, in that case, would not be turning left onto the airplane was Mark Cavendish. Earlier in the summer, he had been the hottest property in road cycling, following two stage wins in the Giro d’Italia and four more in the Tour de France. Now the 23-year-old from the Isle of Man was the only rider out of 14 on Great Britain’s track cycling team not to win a medal in the Laoshan Velodrome.
If this was a rather crashing fall to earth, worse was to follow. Cavendish borrowed a medal from one of his team-mates only to be stopped at check-in by a stewardess with polite words to the effect of, ‘My boyfriend follows cycling and I know you didn’t win that.’ In the event, he was given a seat in Club, but you cannot help wondering what was going through the mind of the sprinter – not known as one of sport’s most self-effacing characters – on the nine-hour flight.
By any definition, Cavendish has had a phenomenal year, one that he could not have dreamed of 12 months ago. In March, he won gold in the Madison event at the track World Championships with Wiggins, someone whom he describes as ‘like a brother’. At the Giro d’Italia in May – the first of the season’s Grand Tours, the three competitions that define the road-cycling calendar – he won as many stages in one race as British riders have taken in the event’s 99-year history. At the Tour de France in July, which remains the greatest test in the sport, he proved, four times over, that he is the fastest man on two wheels. Cavendish may never wear the yellow jersey – as he admits, he cannot climb a hill – but again he far outstripped what any British cyclist had ever achieved in the gruelling, three-week Tour. By the end of the season, he had won 17 road races, making him the most successful professional rider in the world.
And yet, almost overnight, Cavendish’s achievements were overshadowed by the stunning domination of the track team in Beijing. Track and road cycling are very different disciplines – Cavendish is practically unique right now in being able to excel at both – but, for much of the British public, it seems that they only have room in their hearts (and memory banks) for the Olympics. Do not expect the Manx rider to feature prominently in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. ‘With cycling, the guy on the street will know the Tour de France and the Olympics and nothing else,’ says Chris Boardman, who won gold at Barcelona in 1992, before hitting the road and winning two stages of the Tour. ‘And for the Tour de France you have got to win it overall to match the Olympics. Naturally the Olympics is a bigger thing for your average Joe Punter.’
So, Cavendish remains virtually unknown in Britain. Every so often, though, someone will come up to him in an airport or in a restaurant, look at him with sad eyes, and say, ‘Oh, hard luck at the Olympics.’ He doesn’t know quite how to respond.
Cavendish still lives in the Isle of Man, a wild but hospitable place that has only recently outlawed birching and the death penalty but where, he claims, ‘you are still allowed to shoot a Scotsman in a kilt, as long as you do it with a bow and arrow’. We have arranged to meet for a ride, and when I arrive at his house on a wintry Monday morning he is in slippers in his kitchen attempting to stop his espresso machine from overheating. He would like to make it a short one this morning, which suits me just fine. ‘I ride my bike 45,000km a year,’ he says. ‘People ask you to come here and there and I say, ‘”I can’t.” And they say, “Yeah, I realise you’re tired, I realise you just want a bit of peace and quiet.” And it’s like, no. I. Am. Fucked. I’m totally, utterly exhausted. My body is eating itself because I’m so tired.’
There is no such thing as an easy ride on the island, the roads swoop and pitch like a rollercoaster. The weather doesn’t help: it is hard not to smile when Cavendish comes down changed, wearing ear, arm and leg warmers and neoprene booties, but it makes more sense when hail starts to spit viciously 45 minutes in. The Isle of Man is producing some of the best young cyclists in Britain at the moment – as well as Cavendish, both Jonny Bellis and Peter Kennaugh are rated as future Tour riders – and you can’t help feeling, sucking for breath up another strength-sapping climb, that a variation of ‘If you can make it here…’ is at work.
There is a rumour that Cavendish might still be raw about the Olympics, but the subject comes up organically. We have stopped at the island’s only cycling track in Onchan, which a few years ago was turned into a stock-car venue, but has since been abandoned. He says that he dreams one days of opening a proper indoor velodrome here, that it could be something for him to look after when he retires. What, I wonder, is his future on the track?
‘I’m finished,’ he says coldly. ‘No, there’s nothing for me to do there now. I wouldn’t gain anything in my career either financially or in terms of being remembered. It would just be a hindrance on what I can gain on the road.’
What about 2012? ‘Yeah, I’ll be going to 2012, but I’ll be going on the road.’
Hours later, in the shadow of an almighty flatscreen in his living room, he returns to the subject of the Olympics. Cavendish is of slighter build than you might expect, just 5ft 8in, and his hair is cropped so tight that you almost wouldn’t know it was curly. His accent is softer, less Scouse than during his legendarily brash interviews on television, where he often talks with a certainty that might make Muhammad Ali blush. Anyone expecting his confidence to be dented by recent events, however, will be disappointed.
‘If the Olympics didn’t happen,’ he says, ‘what I’ve done in cycling this year, if I don’t mind saying myself, is pretty fucking phenomenal. So the Olympics, I was doing it as a favour to British Cycling for helping me. In terms of my career, winning the Olympics will do fuck all for my cycling career. If I want to be a celebrity or go on breakfast TV, it would do a hell of a lot for my career. But it would do nothing for my cycling career.’
Some explanation: Cavendish is employed for the most part by his road-cycling outfit, the US-backed Team Columbia. His success this year will make him one of the most highly paid riders in a sport where even journeymen competitors can earn a little under £100,000. Many Olympic champions, despite those appearances on GMTV, meeting The Queen et cetera, will earn a fraction of this amount, as Bradley Wiggins discovered after winning gold in Athens. ‘Round where we lived,’ he said recently, ‘people would say to my wife, “What are you doing here? Brad’s a millionaire now.” I had the same misconception. The reality was quite different. I woke up every Monday morning and we were still overdrawn and I’d think, “God, I don’t feel like riding my bike today.’
‘The biggest regret of my career is quitting the Tour de France,’ Cavendish continues, looking back on his decision to leave this year’s race after stage 14 so that he would be fresh for the Olympics. ‘I feel massively let down, I’m still bitter now. Really let down. To leave the Tour de France to do that. You sit there, sit there, you’re the last event on, every single member of the team has got a medal, the pressure’s on you and, boom, it goes. You don’t get it, even though I still think I was the best rider on the track. It’s quite hard to accept really.’
The Madison, named after Madison Square Garden in New York, where it was popularised at the turn of the last century, is so complicated that you sometimes wonder if anyone really knows the rules. One thing in Beijing was certain: Wiggins, one of the greatest track riders ever, and Cavendish, with his untouchable finishing, were as close as you could get to a dream team going into the 50km, 200-lap race. That, however, was before the former went through six races, all in world-class times, to win golds in the 4,000m Individual Pursuit and Team Pursuit. As Wiggins admits in his recent autobiography, ‘Physically, I was in bits,’ and, despite a pre-race blast of ‘Oasis and Weller’, the pair could only finish ninth. Although they are close friends, they did not speak for more than two months after the event.
‘At first after the Olympics, I was pissed at Brad,’ admits Cavendish. ‘But if he’s made to train for 4k, for sure he’s not going to be good at 50k. And they [British Cycling] were all about the Team Pursuit and he just had to train at 4k. In training, they would just ignore me while they timed the Team Pursuiters going round. They trained so much for that that they forgot the Madison – well, they didn’t forget the Madison, they didn’t give a shit. That’s not fair when I’ve given that much commitment to it. I left the Tour de France – the biggest bike race in the world – when I was fighting for the green jersey [awarded to the best sprinter in the race] and I could have potentially won on the Champs-Elysees, and it makes me bitter that they didn’t give back what I’d given to them.’
Chris Boardman, now head of research and development at British Cycling, unsurprisingly, has a different version of events. ‘Mark’s goal for the year had to be the Tour de France and that meant that we had to take whatever was left,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, he had to take a break for a week when the other guys were on a training camp. Then he wanted to capitalise on it and ride some Criteriums’ – short races on street circuits – ‘around the world and then he just wanted to do some training on his own in Manchester. And all this time the other guys were on an Olympic camp, doing specific preparation for the Games. So I don’t think that helped massively.’
Despite this, even Boardman admits that Cavendish was in good shape in Beijing. ‘Yes, it was mostly Bradley. It was a gamble that didn’t work out.’
Before the Games, it was speculated that Cavendish might also compete in the Individual Pursuit in Beijing, the event that Wiggins has dominated in recent years. Cavendish would never have seriously challenged his friend, but he rode a trial in Manchester to see if he should take the second spot in the team. Ultimately, it was decided that entering the event – which he had only raced a handful of occasions – would be too much of a risk. This is now another regret for Cavendish. ‘Looking at the Olympics now, my time would have got a decent result,’ he says wistfully.
In the final, New Zealand’s Hayden Roulston took silver with 4 minutes 19.6 seconds – it is been rumoured that Cavendish was riding under 4 minutes 20. Were his times good enough to win a medal? ‘Possibly.’
Say what you like about Mark Cavendish, but you are always guaranteed a forthright opinion. This has not always endeared him to fellow competitors – the Italian rider Filippo Pozzato has called him ‘disrespectful’ and his cycling ‘reckless’ – or to some of the sport’s fans, who make vicious attacks on him on internet forums. For many, it seems, an enduring image of the summer was Cavendish approaching the finish line, rocked back on saddle, his rivals burned off, wearing an expression that one blogger describes as ‘very punchable’.
‘You must have seen him interviewed after events and he can be really good or he can be absolutely appalling and offensive,’ says Boardman. ‘He just doesn’t think about it. If he’s won, he’s happy to talk and he’s chatty; but catch him across the line when he’s lost and ask him “How does that feel?” and he just looks at the person like “Are you thick? Well, I lost.” He comes across as a right dick sometimes, but it’s because you have caught somebody who is in a totally emotional state. And that’s where he has to be to do the job.’
Before this summer’s Tour de France, Wiggins was asked for his predictions by ITV: ‘I think Cav will win a couple of stages and then his head will get so big that it won’t fit in the door when he comes back,’ he said half-jokingly. I ask him about that comment now. ‘Actually, I see a lot of myself in him when I was that age,’ says Wiggins diplomatically. ‘But he’s not as cocky as he portrays on the telly, he’s a nice bloke really. He does play to the television and press a bit. He tells me that he’s said things and he says, “Should I have said that?” And I’ll say “Man, it’s done now.” But he’s had such a rapid rise to fame and it’s difficult to know how to handle it.’
Cavendish is certainly less intense than he sometimes comes across and is an unguarded, refreshing antidote to many modern sport stars. In his mind, he is not arrogant or boastful, he is merely confirming what any overhead TV camera shows: he is the fastest man in the world in the last 200m of a bike race. ‘Why finish a race and say something that you’ve read off a bit of paper? It’s stupid,’ he says. ‘That takes the passion out of sport. When you start a sport, you do it because you love it, you do it because it means everything to you. So you want to say your feelings and if you let your emotions pour out it shows how much the sport means to you. And cycling means everything to me.’
He has always ridden BMXs, but Cavendish took up cycling seriously when he was 13. Despite an unpromising physiognomy – most cyclists have long limbs that work like levers; his legs are squat and muscular and push the pedals like pistons – he always finished races like a bull. Mostly, however, what marked him out from others was hard work. His brother Andrew, one year younger, started cycling around the same time and everyone agrees that he probably had more natural talent. Yet it was Mark who would go out on the bike for two hours after school or cycle throughout the seemingly permanent Isle of Man winters.
From the age of 14, Mark was going to races on the mainland, often on his own. He recalls one occasion where he was racing in Manchester and he caught the midnight ferry carrying his track bike over one shoulder and dragging his road bike in a bag, as well as lugging a rucksack with his kit in. He arrived in Heysham in the morning, took the train to Manchester, ate a pasta salad from Asda and then waited around until his race in the afternoon. He then made the return journey home, arriving after midnight. Was that the difference between him and Andrew, who by this stage had stopped riding? ‘I think so, yeah,’ he replies. ‘But I think that’s the difference between me and a hell of a lot of people. Everyone really.’
At that age, cycling was still competing in his life with ballroom dancing; this sounds like a joke or at least a quirky British movie, but Mark’s mother runs a dancewear store in Douglas, while his father is an IT consultant for accountancy firms. Mark was far from a natural dancer, and his new hobby did not go uncommented upon at school, but perversely this seemed to make him keener than ever to succeed. ‘Again, Andrew got out of it pretty soon because of peer pressure, whereas Mark was determined he was going to win something,’ says his father David. ‘He would be “I hate this but I’m damn well going to win something.”’ In the end, he became half of the best pair on the island and competed at the national championships, specialising in Latin American.
It also revealed another more belligerent side to his character. ‘When he was dancing, they do the team dances when they have got six or eight pairs or something like that and he’s the one who’s telling everyone else they’re out of step,’ his father continues. ‘Him and his partner are the only ones who are doing it right and five or seven others are doing it wrong.’
Cavendish, however, never doubted he would make it as a pro cyclist. He studied French and German at GCSE, so he would be better equipped to ride with continental teams, and despite good exam results he left school at 16 to work in a bank to save money to get his professional licence. The bank was a formative experience – he hardly cycled for 18 months and on a diet of ‘cream cakes and sausage baps’ his weight ballooned to almost 13 stone. But it also made him more determined than ever. ‘The best thing that happened to me is working in that bank because now I realise that I could be doing that,’ he says. ‘I’d rather be on my bike in the rain than sat in the bank serving customers with it raining outside.’
Everyone agrees that road sprinters are a rare, unreconstructed breed. Watched in real time, the end of a race looks like swirling chaos, with 200 riders lunging dementedly towards the line at up to 50mph, their elbows jutting out and their wheels weaving across the tarmac. A fractional misjudgment by one rider could result in the entire mass bundling into a pile. At the front, there is butting, pushing, sledging and, on one famous occasion, bottle throwing. It takes very little to deliberately sabotage one of your rivals at this speed – what is known as ‘flicking’ from the German word ‘ficken’, meaning ‘to fuck’.
‘A lot of sprinters are quite emotional,’ says Chris Boardman, ‘You have to be – it’s like being a fighter, you have got to be really up for it. Whereas I might be in the middle of a peloton and there are 100 people in front of me and I see all these bodies, Mark will see the gaps between the bodies. That’s a fundamental difference between us.’
I ask Cavendish’s fiancée, Melissa, if she is scared for Mark in the final stages of a race. ‘It’s not fear of him crashing,’ she answers, ‘it’s fear of him not winning,’ and it is immediately clear why they have been a couple for eight years, since Mark was 15. (They are due to be married in October, though only, Cavendish says straight-faced, with Melissa purposely in earshot, if ‘I don’t go off with that Diana from X-Factor’.)
Sprints, it is usually assumed, are something of a lottery, particularly in a race like the Tour de France, which brings together the fastest, most determined bike riders in the world. So many factors need to be in place, not least that you need to summon an unholy amount of power – something like 1600 watts, 50 per cent more than a good club rider could produce on fresh legs – after cycling for six hours every day for three weeks. Besides that, you need a strong team to put you in a position to contest the final burst and luck to stay out of trouble. Cavendish’s greatest achievement is in making something that should be unpredictable into a routine occurrence. At this year’s Tour it didn’t matter if it was sunny or rainy, if the finish was uphill or downhill, he would leave his rivals banging their handlebars in fury.
In some respects, it is not immediately obvious why Cavendish is able to dominate road sprints so emphatically. Physically, he is powerful but not superhuman; he is strong, yet he never lifts weights or does anything in fact but ride his bike. ‘Mark’s a bit of a freak,’ says Dr David Bailey, a physiologist with the English Institute of Sport, who is responsible for monitoring British Cycling’s endurance athletes, including Cavendish and Wiggins. ‘He doesn’t fit a physiological characteristic that you would say that’s why he’s good, that’s why he’s different. I think the fact that he is small certainly has aerodynamic benefits and that maybe he’s a small, stocky guy means that he has a muscle mass that enables him to generate that power but it isn’t at the cost of being a barn door going into the wind. Maybe that’s it.’
Other factors are undoubtedly his age and his track background – as sprinters get older, their bodies adapt to the demands of three-week endurance races and lose some of their natural speed. There’s also, this being cycling, the issue of doping. With the sport arguably cleaner than ever before, Cavendish – who has always submitted to the most scrupulous testing – is competing on the most level playing field for many years. However, when those who know him are asked to explain his success, a consensus does start to emerge. ‘Without a doubt, it’s his mind, he’s so strong in the mind,’ says Rod Ellingworth, who has coached Cavendish since he was 18. For his father, ‘it’s his determination’. While for Boardman, it is ‘self-belief’.
Boardman continues, ‘It sounds like a throwaway line but for a sprinter it’s absolutely critical. Because if you are physically having a fight with somebody and you believed you were going to win, you are literally protected by the hormone surge you get as a reward for that. Everything is driving towards winning. Whereas if you have the slightest doubt, you think “I’m going to lose”, your body starts thinking of alternatives, how to get away from this, it shuts things down, you start to feel the pain. Mark simply believes he is going to win, so all the adrenaline and everything else he needs to put himself in a position to win happens.’
It seems counter-intuitive that a sport dominated by athletes whose greatness is often measured in abstract values like aerobic capacity and resting heart rate that an individual can get to the top through mental strength. But, despite Cavendish’s other qualities as a rider, that seems to be the case. ‘I think he played cycling a hell of a lot in his head as a kid,’ says Ellingworth. ‘He dreamed cycling, he dreamed moments, he dreamed situations, he saw himself racing. When he was a young kid he would be out, I don’t know, doing his paper round or just a club run but he was riding the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix. If you spoke to people who worked with people’s minds they would say it’s visualisation, but Mark has just always done it instinctively.’
If you listen to Cavendish, it is frightening what he can achieve in the next few seasons. The route for the 2009 Tour has already been announced, and the profile of the stages looks to suit him even better than last year. The record of eight stage wins is an outside shot, but he will be determined to complete the race and he has set his sights on the maillot vert, the second most prestigious jersey. Beyond that, Cavendish is already counting the days to the 2011 Road Cycling World Championships, which will be held on a pan-flat course in Copenhagen.
He nods when asked if he is adamant that he will not return to the track. ‘The track for me is easy success and for other people it’s easy success, which is real nice,’ he says. ‘It’s nice to indulge and get easy success, you are not going to turn it down. But yeah, after a while, if it’s easy and it keeps coming, do something different.’ Is this an implicit criticism of track specialists like Wiggins and Hoy? ‘Absolutely not. They are amazing, amazing athletes. What Brad does in the individual pursuit is the equivalent of what road riders do, it shows what is physically possible. Every nation in the world does road cycling, but on the track, if you took Great Britain out, it is not so strong.’
Boardman broadly agrees with this point, noting the comparative popularity of the two sports. ‘What you have on the road is tremendous strength in depth and the difference between the best and virtually all of the also-rans is frighteningly subtle,’ he says. ‘In the track world, the level of competition is just as high, but for two or three people and then the drop-off is quite big. So there just isn’t the strength in depth. And it’s more controllable on the track. You can work hard for something and prepare properly, taper down and be ready for the day and you will get a reward. On the road, you can be in awesome shape and it just doesn’t go your way and you don’t get a look in.’
It is clear that Cavendish is an emotional character, and he is obviously devastated by the Olympics. Even now, he remains ‘real distraught, really distraught’; it was the first time he can ever remember not wanting to ride his bike. You just hope that he does not come to regret some of his more finite pronouncements. Both Ellingworth and Boardman have spoken to him about it, but both men agree that his ability to channel this passion is a major factor in what makes him an exceptional competitor. The danger, when you live somewhere like the Isle of Man, is that it is easy to become isolated and, as Boardman observes, as you become more successful, ‘people talk more quietly and you do less listening’.
Cavendish seems genuinely touched to win OSM’s award; it provides, he says, some acknowledgement for what he has achieved this year. When we leave him it is dark outside and he is standing in his kitchen, in his slippers, eating a bowl of cereal. He has a beautiful house in the hills, a Lexus in the driveway, a lovely fiancée and a shaggy Labrador called Amber. He is young, obscenely talented and hugely respected. He is a decent guy and admirably unaffected, even if he does have a big mouth. Hell, he may even be legally allowed to take down a Scotsman if he oversteps the mark. The only thing that feels like it is lacking from his life is recognition from the British public; winning that, however, might just make cycling up l’Alpe D’Huez look easy.