Cycle Heroes August 10, 2010

British Cycling Heroes - Mark Cavendish

It is perhaps a little hasty to afford Mark Cavendish one of these esteemed profiles when, at the tender age of 25, there is so much more he can, and probably will, still achieve.

Such is the volatility of his persona, however, that there is a big part of you that thinks that infamy is also still within his grasp. There is rarely a dull moment with the ‘Manx Missile’ and his profile is rarely low, in and out of the saddle.

Mark Cavendish arrived in the world on May 21st, 1985, to parents David and Adele, in Douglas on the Isle of Man, a younger brother to Andy. A keen cyclist from a young age, encouraged by a cycling league for youngsters at the local Sports Centre, he started out with a BMX and was soon racing against his mates who were on mountain bikes, much to the amusement of his mother. Young Cavendish politely explained that if he, too, were equipped with a mountain bike there would no cause for such mirth. He was obliged on the thirteenth anniversary of his birth and promptly “went out and beat everyone”. His brother, however, was considered the more talented of the Cavendish brothers, but he was also the least motivated and it was not long before Cavendish junior’s drive made him the superior prospect.

It was a meeting with David Millar around his start of his teenage years that truly seemed to provoke the cyclist lurking inside Cavendish and his desire to race at the highest level. After leaving school, he worked in a bank with the express ambition of earning the money to allow him to turn professional. One suspects as a bank employee that his work was unspectacular for the vast majority of the day until, just before the branch shut, he would become a blitz of activity and saunter off with the “Employee of the Month” award in front of stunned colleagues. Or something like that.

Cavendish’s unusual physique and pedalling style meant he still had a lot of convincing to do to make it as a professional. The story goes that when plugged into the monitors to measure his power and physical limits the results were unspectacular, prompting the head coach at British Cycling to ask Cav what he wanted out of cycling. “I want to be a road pro, win stages of the Tour and be a world champion,” came the reply.

“Well, you’re not hitting the numbers to do that,” responded the head coach. It seemed a career as a journeyman was the best the Manx Missile could hope for.

Cavendish’s career kicked off with the British Track Cycling team. Together with Rob Hayles, he won gold in the Madison at the 2005 Los Angeles World Track Championships and followed that up with victory in the points race in the 2005 European Track Cycling Championships. This was the catalyst for Cavendish to move into road racing and, later in 2005 as a trialist with Team Sparkasse, he rode in the Tours of Berlin and Britain. 

Team Sparkasse, a feeder team for the T-Mobile outfit, remained his abode into 2006 and his performance at the Tour of Berlin (victory on two stages, and in the points and sprint competitions) had him elevated to the parent team as a stagiaire before the season was out. He rode for T-Mobile in the Tour of Britain where he notched up more success in the shape of another points completion victory, fundamentally of the back of three second place finishes and was given a professional contract for 2007 and 2008. In the meantime, he popped over to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and picked up a gold medal for the Isle of Man in the scratch race, beating Hayles, amongst others, in a sprint finish.

2007 dawned, and Cavendish’s debut professional season did not kick-off in the manner he, or his team, might have hoped. The French press called it laborious, and some might call that a generous assessment as the Manx Missile failed to complete a single race prior to April’s Grote Scheldeprijs in Belgium. Team-mate Roger Hammond said that things had gone so “catastrophically” that the team were selecting Cavendish’s races based on whether he would have a chance of finishing, much like a parent gently suggesting their offspring tries a Cornetto rather than a knickerbocker glory. However, Cav did ‘Grote’ things in Belgium and not only did he finish, but won the entire event to boot. Thereafter, Cavendish went on to win stages at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Volta a Catalunya to ensure selection for the Tour de France. He crashed during the first stage, which started in London, and came a cropper in the second stage as well, before abandoning the race on the eighth stage. A pair of top ten finishes had been chalked up, but Cavendish knew he was capable of more.

Suitably motivated, Cavendish continued to notch up stage wins in subsequent events and, in October, during the Circuit Franco-Belge, Cavendish took the flag to equal Alessandro Petacchi’s record for stage wins in a debut season with his eleventh victory. After August’s Tour of Benelux, the Manxman declared: “I'm an old-school sprinter. I can't climb a mountain but if I am in front with 200 metres to go then there's nobody who can beat me."

So, to 2008, and March saw a return to the track and, what’s more, another gold medal in the Madison, this time in cahoots with Bradley Wiggins, helping Great Britain to the summit of the medal table. There was further progress on the road as Cavendish picked up his first stage victories in a Grand Tour, sprinting home twice during the Giro d’Italia. This was followed by a first stage victory in the Tour de France, as he romped over the line on the fifth stage into Châteauroux and Cavendish liked the feeling so much he repeated the trick thrice more before le Tour was done. He was the first British rider to win four stages on a single Tour and, for the time being, that was good enough as Cavendish quit the race one stage later to concentrate on the Beijing Olympics.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered. Wiggins and Cavendish slumped home in eighth in the Madison, with the Manxman falling out with his racing partner and British Cycling as a consequence. With some questioning the impact of Cavendish’s exploits during the professional season so far on his preparation, it was unsurprising that later that year came the announcement from Cavendish that his fraternisation with track cycling was at an indefinite end.

This Olympic nonsense was but a blip, though, and 2008 on the road continued in a triumphant fashion, Cavendish picking up eleven more stage victories, three of them helping him to victory at the Tour of Missouri, and gave Wiggins a pasting in the prologue time trial at the Tour de Romandie.

Cavendish got his 2009 underway at the Tour of Qatar, winning two stages, a feat he matched at the Tour of California, trading spring victories with Tom Boonen. He walked away with the points classification victory in California. Following this, Cavendish had decided that his seven month cold shoulder had taught track cycling the lesson it deserved, and so was a shock inclusion in the British squad for the 2009 UCI Track Cycling World Championships. An unforgiving track cycling responded by leaving the Manx Missile without a medal in either the scratch race or the Madison.

Returning to the European road cycling season, Cavendish was unusually humble in the run-up to his first classic race, the Milan - San Remo, effectively concurring with his rivals that the climbs would preclude his winning the race. It was either a masterful display of kidology or a rare absence of ego in Cav’s interviews but, either way, he toiled over the climbs and hauled in Heinrich Haussler at the death to win the sprint and the race in a thrilling finish which left his adversaries stunned. It was his first overall title and typically Cavendish that he saved the moment for one of cycling’s most significant events.

Cavendish popped his head round the door for the Giro d’Italia, and became the first British rider to wear the Maglia Rosa leaders jersey after his Columbia team won the Team Time Trial, T-Mobile having morphed into Team Columbia-High Road via Team High Road and Team Columbia by this stage. Soon after, they would become Team Columbia-HTC. Cav was frustrated by Petacchi and fate in the stages one and two of the race, but recovered to accomplish three stage wins. That was enough of that and he retired from the race to prepare for the Tour de France.

He took in the Tour de Suisse as part of that preparation and picked up a couple more stage victories, which were now becoming second nature to him. Cavendish’s extraordinary partnership with his lead-out man, Aussie Mark Renshaw, was the main catalyst for this and together they enabled the Missile to blitz six stages of the 2009 Tour de France. Cavendish held the green jersey for three days over two spells, but gave up on winning it overall after losing all of his Stage Fourteen points after provoking an incident involving himself, Thor Hushovd and some barriers, which naturally manifested itself in some choice post-stage quotes from the Manxman. In amongst all these skirmishes, Cav broke Barry Hoban’s British record of eight Tour de France stage wins, and took a prestigious victory on the final stage, leading home Renshaw on the Champs-Élysées for a Columbia one-two.

Later in the year, Cavendish claimed his 50th stage win of his road racing career during the Tour of Missouri but could not complete the race after developing a lung infection, which also curtailed his participation in the Men's Road Race at the 2009 UCI Road World Championships. 

There was significant speculation in the media towards the end of 2009 that Cavendish would defect to the newly-formed Team Sky, but he opted to remain part of Team Columbia-HTC for the 2010 season. However, despite his lung being all better, his medical woes were not done with, and dental issues prevented his season getting underway promptly. Not getting underway until February did not do his form any favours and he was unable to defend his Milan - San Remo crown in spectacular fashion, finishing 89th.

Things improved at the 2010 Volta a Catalunya where Cavendish picked up a stage victory but the cranky Manxman had to be withdrawn by his team from the Tour of Romandie after he made a naughty sign to celebrate winning the second stage. Despite another stage victory at the Tour of California, his mood was no better at the Tour of Switzerland where he crashed badly towards the climax of the fourth stage, veering wildly and taking out a group of his fellow riders into the bargain. His victims - Heinrich Haussler, Arnaud Coyot and Lloyd Mondory - were forced to quit the event due to their injuries which didn’t go down too well and the start of the following stage was delayed by a protest from some riders regarding Cavendish's approach and perceived lack of respect. Not for the first time, Cavendish was not quite Monsieur Popular as he went into the 2010 Tour de France.

By the end of Stage One, his reputation was even closer to the gutter after another crash, botching a corner and taking Óscar Freire with him. The stage was eventually taken by Petacchi, who would eventually prevent him achieving his pre-season objective of winning the green jersey, but Cavendish still made it another memorable Tour, claiming five stage victories including a second consecutive epic swagger over the line on the Champs-Élysées. Critics who questioned his reliance on Renshaw were answered when Cavendish produced arguably the two outstanding sprint finishes of the event on the eighteenth and that twentieth stage after the Aussie had been ejected from the event for headbutting on Stage Eleven.

So there you have it. Cavendish’s career to date has been a qualified triumph, but a fascinating journey. The least talented Cavendish brother, an athlete seemingly unsuited to reaching the heights of professional road cycling has mastered an uncompromising, idiosyncratic sprinting style that has broken records and promises to break more. He is a British athlete who is scaling the pinnacles (metaphorically at least) of his sport and, maybe more than this, he is interesting.

He is an enigma. As noted earlier, his physique and statistics did not point to the competitor we see today. But, as Paul Kimmage wrote in The Times earlier this year, “wave a chequered flag at him and the results were extraordinary. Watch how low he gets on his bike as he pushes for the line. Nobody wanted it more.”

Vélo magazine described Cavendish’s unique style in the saddle as "a ball of nerves" whilst biomechanics expert Frédéric Grappe compares him to an athletics sprinter pushing on the starting blocks, “doing that, he optimises the muscular chain of his lower members to get the greatest possible power to the pedals.” Whatever and whichever it is, it is damn effective.

But in bikebritain’s humble opinion, Cavendish’s public standing is not aligned with his achievements on the bike. Has his abrasive style, on and off the track, elicited this problem?

He doesn’t help himself, that is for sure. 

So poorly did Cavendish feel he came off in interviews, he felt the need to publish an autobiography, ‘Boy Racer’, in June 2009, explaining that his "biggest motivation for writing it had been to explain himself better". Cavendish explains how these misconceptions occur thusly: “when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer 'Yes', and that's seen as arrogance, but if they don't ask me, I don't say I'm the best sprinter in the world.” You can see how people get confused.

Recent newspaper interviews focus on confessions of an absence from his brother’s side when he was sentenced to six years for importing and possessing drugs in April and distancing himself from his now divorced parents as much as his cycling. They know that these anecdotes help to increase the mystery around Cavendish and make better copy, but at the same time they are furthering the image of the Manxman as arrogant and aloof.

Cavendish has also clashed with more cyclists on the Tour than you would care to mention and rarely comes out of it well. From telling Filippo Pozzato (in ‘Boy Racer’ rather than over a espresso) that “his problem” was “I think he fancies me” to wondering out loud if Thor Hushovd could “sleep at night” after the incident in the 2009 Tour de France, (a comment he subsequently declared himself “embarrassed” by) to pointing out to teammate André Greipel that even “on bad form” he was “still better”, via peloton protests, V-signs and tears, Cavendish has made himself a hard man for the Tour and the fans to love. "Sometimes I don't think of the consequences," says Cavendish. Well, duh.

What next for Mark Cavendish? When he crossed the line as winner of the second stage in the 2009 Tour de France, he became Britain's most successful professional cyclist of all time, eclipsing Chris Boardman. He sits joint twelfth in the list of all time stage wins in the Tour de France with fifteen, someway off Eddy Merckx’s 34, but with the opportunity to set a benchmark for the specialist sprinters and eclipse the efforts of some big names in the process.

Whatever he does or doesn’t achieve, it is unlikely that Mark Cavendish will become a sporting hero to the masses along the way. You suspect he doesn’t really mind all that much.

Sources

Wikipedia

Independent Online

Times Online

Cycling weekly

Guardian.co.uk

BBC Website

Vélo

“Boy Racer” by Mark Cavendish (Ebury Press)

Thumbnail and Slider photo credit - www.htc.com/sharedimages

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