Words: Matt Majendie
The other morning, Mark Cavendish woke up feeling jaded and in a foul mood. There was no great reason for his sullenness. After all, life is good. Last year, the road-racing cyclist signed a lucrative deal with Team Sky, he is the current BBC Sports Personality of the Year and, at the time of our conversation, his girlfriend was five weeks away from giving birth to the couple’s daughter.
But he was engulfed by ill humour that was only going to be resolved by one thing. “I was tired and in a bad mood,” he recalls. “I didn’t wish to do anything else other than get on my bike. The bike makes you feel good about life. If you have good legs you can just go on and on and on.” And with that, a big smile emerges across the face of the 26 year-old.In fact, it’s a noticeable trait how much Cavendish smiles when he talks about cycling. At heart, the young kid that first rode his bike on the Isle of Man for sheer escapism, for the love of it, is usually bubbling away not far from the surface of this occasionally complex, always engaging athlete.
The bike makes you feel good about life. If you have good legs you can just go on and on and on
“I’m quite unorthodox in cycling as a lot of guys are much more structured in their training,” he says. “I just ride my bike and if I want to ride hard and race my friends to the nearest lamppost, that’s what I’ll do, and I don’t like losing whether it’s with friends or in a race.”The idea of the Road World Champion, also a winner of 20 stages of the Tour de France, racing his mates to the nearest landmark is an endearing one. In some ways it conjures up Cavendish in a nutshell. Off the bike, he describes himself as a “student of the sport”. He’s certainly in his element at a retro photoshoot for PODIUM in which he dons cycling gear from a host of past decades, most notably the era he most would have liked to race in—“the 1960s, when Eddy Merckx was racing”.
Yet for all this love of bike racing and the nostalgia of the sport, there is a different Mark Cavendish on the bike, the more public persona that has seen him labelled the fastest man on two wheels. As he jostles for the best possible position, it is not the excitement of the chase that grabs him nor does he dwell on any resulting adrenalin rush. In his mind, the battle to be the first across the line on the bike—he usually is—is no different to the puzzles he likes to solve off it.
“There’s no room for emotion in a sprint, it’s all very clinical,” he divulges. “You have to make 100 decisions every five seconds and it’s like mathematics, like working out how big the space is to get through. There’s a million variations going on and it’s all quite matter of fact. It’s just like one big puzzle every time.”What makes him so good is a puzzle in itself. The person standing in front of me with an outstretched hand, as he arrives at a photographic studio in East London, is too charming and polite to be jostling his opponents out of the way and is seemingly too diminutive to have the power in his legs to make him so unnervingly quick.
For his part, Cavendish is aware he is not necessarily built to be the best as the seemingly topical nature/nurture debate of sporting talent crops up. “Look at me, physically I’m short and pretty useless,” he says. “I train hard and I work hard and I’m a big believer in the idea that everything you achieve is through hard work. If you want something bad enough, you put your mind to it. You have to do the work. I work hard on training both my mind and my body.”
I train hard and I work hard and I’m a big believer in the idea that everything you achieve is through hard work
Growing up, Cavendish never dreamt of being the next Merckx of the cycling world. As he says himself, “I never wanted to be anybody else, I wanted to be me”. And he has certainly been his own character. A quick internet search on his name immediately throws up a picture of him giving a V-sign while winning a stage at the 2010 Tour de Romandie in Switzerland.Looking back at such escapades, he says: “I’ve changed a lot since then. I was 24 there and now I’m 26. I know I made mistakes but I think I was perceived wrong a lot of the time. But I’ve grown up, and Peta has a lot to do with it.”
Peta is Peta Todd, a model and, since 2010, Cavendish’s girlfriend. He shakes his head in disbelief at the idea that he might never have encountered her. After all, he was not invited to the event where they first met but simply turned up on a whim. He was training in Los Angeles at the time and heard about an initiative by Help for Heroes, the charity for British wounded servicemen, called The Gumpathon—a Forrest Gump-inspired run across America. Todd was a patron of the charity and the couple got talking.“I saw her and I knew straight away,” he recalls. “She was walking through the hall and we hit it off straight away.” Was the attraction mutual? “Imagine some lad common as muck that just comes bouncing up to you!”
The couple’s relationship has blossomed although not through any love of cycling. Since they’ve been together Todd has ridden a bike just once, again for Help for Heroes. “We just have a laugh, she’s my best mate,” says Cavendish, rather sheepishly.Now settled and with the imminent arrival of a child, there has been the suggestion that the competitive edge of the world’s leading sprinter is in danger of waning.The idea’s been put to him before, a few times in fact, he says, but he argues that the impact is the exact opposite. “I find if your life is settled off the bike, you’re more settled on it,” he points out. “A lot of people have said ‘When you have kids, you won’t take risks’. But I’m so determined now to do so much more, to give my daughter the best life possible. It makes me want to win more, to fight more. Because the cycling’s going to take me away from her, I have to make sure I make the most of it by winning for her.”
The happy couple, whom he admits are both very stubborn, are so organised that everything has been ready at their home since Christmas, that their child has enough clothes for the first year of her life and he already has a clear idea how he is going to be as a parent.“She’ll have me wrapped around her little finger until she’s about 12 or 13 and then after that she won’t be allowed to do anything!” he jokes, before adding: “It’s the best thing. Nothing comes close to this although, as you get closer, there is a fear that everything’s okay with Peta and the baby. I think it’s a natural worry.”
Cavendish has just come from the couple’s last scan before the birth and fortuitously—the date of the birth wasn’t planned—the due date coincides with a five-week period at home focusing on his training. Such is the picture of domestic bliss that he paints, it is perhaps apt that the scene of our interview is just behind the Geffrye Museum, London’s museum of the home.
As far as his day job is concerned, there have been the usual thrills and spills early in the season. Notable wins—including a first for Team Sky in stage three of the Tour of Qatar in January—were followed by a crash in which he damaged his neck, for which he is still receiving treatment. The only problem for his rivals is that, even when he’s not at his physical peak, he is still a formidable foe in the home straight, as shown in February by his victory in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a 195km ride around the west of Belgium. His focus for this season is on the Giro d’Italia in May and July’s Tour de France, where last year hebecame the first British cyclist to win the coveted green points jersey for the Tour’s best sprinter. Then, of course, it will be the Olympics. After his well-chronicled disappointment at the Beijing Games, where he failed to win a medal, he’s sure to be more determined than ever in London as he goes for the first gold available in the road race.
When asked what is more important—the Tour de France or the Olympics—he seems genuine when he says it’s impossible to choose. “They’re so very different,” he explains. “The Tour de France is my job as a professional cyclist. Aiming to win there is what I do. The Olympics is just about me being as patriotic as hell. Being a British athlete I just want to represent my country.”
The Tour de France is my job as a professional cyclist. Aiming to win there is what I do. The Olympics is just about me being as patriotic as hell
His first Olympic memory is of Barcelona two decades ago: Fabian Casartelli, who three years later would lose his life while crashing at the Tour de France, won the road race and Chris Boardman sealed gold for Britain on the track. Remarkably, given the recent success of British cycling, that was the first Olympic gold since 1920 when Harry Ryan and Thomas Lance stood atop the podium after the tandem event in Antwerp. Cavendish will be part of a five-man British team riding on the road over a course that ought to suit his finishing power. But he argues, if he wins gold, he should not be the only member of the team to get a medal. “It’s no different to a football team. I have a team of guys that do all the work and I just finish it off like the striker. It takes a special group of people to ride for just one person. They do everything to conserve my energy so that I’m in the best possible shape come the finish.”
Britain’s tactics are clearly good. They dominated the men’s road race at last year’s World Championships, giving Cavendish gold and the coveted rainbow jersey in the process. His new bike manufacturers, Pinarello, gave him the option of giving his specifically designed bike, which costs about £10,000, a complete rainbow-jersey theme; he opted instead for a few subtle rainbow stripes dotted over the bike.That understated nature is also reflected in the clothes he wears—today white trainers, jeans and a black top. He has liked clothes for as long as he can remember. “I don’t like to wear anything too flash with labels all over it,” he explains. “I like Paul Smith (the designer is a good friend) and Christian Dior is quite sharp, but obviously I can’t wear things like skinny jeans. Look at my legs. But mostly I just don’t like wearing showy labels.”
I like Paul Smith (the designer is a good friend) and Christian Dior is quite sharp, but obviously I can’t wear things like skinny jeans. Look at my legs.
Thankfully his fashion howlers have been few and far between, although there is one that stands out in his mind from an awards ceremony in Belgium in 2009. Having filmed a video for the event with cyclists dressed up like the Stig from Top Gear in white driving gear and helmet, he received his award in his Stig-themed outfit. “That was fine at the awards,” says Cavendish, “but then the picture did the rounds and everyone was like: ‘Why were you dressed like that?’” There have been other surreal moments thanks to his cycling successes. He was recently among a handful of people invited to have lunch with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace. He had previously received an MBE from the Queen last November and had joked that she could peer out of the windows of Buckingham Palace to catch the end of the Olympic road race.Their latest meeting was noticeably more informal. “You just realise they’re normal people,” he says. “The corgis were wandering around and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh just like to have a laugh and a joke. They talked about their families and their experiences, and I completely forgot where I was—it was genuinely like I had gone round to anyone’s house for lunch with some really interesting people around the table.”
The Buckingham Palace invitation perhaps sums up the impact that Cavendish and his track counterparts have had in helping to make cycling much more than a minority sport in the UK. “I love that it’s become mainstream,” he says. “What British riders have achieved in the Tour de France and what the track guys have done in the past 10 years have changed the perception of cycling. You definitely see more people on the roads—they are buying into what it is and realise that cycling’s great whether it’s 1km or 100km. It’s humbling to have played a part in that.”
You definitely see more people on the roads—they are buying into what it is and realise that cycling’s great whether it’s 1km or 100km. It’s humbling to have played a part in that.
That increased popularity has raised expectations regarding Cavendish but, as he says of himself: “I don’t always win races, I lose them, which is a bit frustrating. But I don’t cycle for the recognition, I just do it for the love of the bike.” He turns to his bike leaning on a nearby wall—and once again the smile of the cycling aficionado beams out.
Matt Majendie is the Olympics correspondent for London’s Evening Standard and a keen amateur cyclist
Mark Cavendish is represented by Wasserman. Follow him on twitter @MarkCavendish
Outfit by Dior Homme - www.dior.com. Shoes by Tom Ford - www.tomford.com