Mark Cavendish as soon as gave me the look.
It was an interview in a resort foyer in Yorkshire; he was barely late and apologised profusely, then answered questions concerning the Tour de France with enthusiastic element. For some motive I assumed 10 minutes of flowing dialog made me his trusted confidant, so I regarded him within the eyes and requested: how a lot would you like to break Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage file? He shrugged it off. However what would it not imply to you? He went quiet. Wouldn’t it crown your legacy?
The look was someplace within the venn diagram of anger and disdain, and I half anticipated him to stroll off. He stayed, nevertheless it was clear he didn’t need to discuss concerning the file, and in that temporary second I felt the gentlest prod of his well-known spikiness. Cavendish was as soon as requested what he’d realized from a troublesome day on the bike. “That journalists generally ask some silly f***ing questions,” he replied.
Teammates, workers and rivals have all felt Cavendish’s sharp tongue. He would slam doorways if a stage didn’t go to plan. Helmets had been thrown.
“We stood on the bus after races and screamed at one another,” his former leadout man Mark Renshaw tells me.
Cavendish’s closest ally on the 2021 Tour, Michael Morkov, says of spending a month in one another’s pockets: “He’s undoubtedly a character so it’s ups and downs. He has fairly a mood.”
Considered one of Cavendish’s best rivals, Marcel Kittel, tells me a story from the Tour in 2012. “On the beginning line at completely different phases – it occurred greater than as soon as – he was not joyful together with his bike pc and he was yelling and screaming at his mechanic, subsequent to all the opposite riders. Everybody was simply wanting away [thinking] ‘you can’t try this Cav, it’s actually loopy and it’s actually disrespectful.’
“However everybody on the identical time was like, ‘he can truly be a very nice man’. It’s simply… him.”
Renshaw was Cavendish’s loyal lieutenant by means of a lot of his profession. On the floor there was little to unite a laid-back Australian with a hyped-up Manxman; one was stoic and calculated, the opposite usually emotional and impulsive. However Cavendish wanted Renshaw’s calm head on the highway, and their temperaments complemented one another.
“I don’t suppose you could possibly have two Mark Cavendishs in a group and that may work,” Renshaw says gravely, as if genuinely disturbed by the picture he has created.
Cavendish disrupted the present order immediately, successful 4 phases at his first Tour de France in 2008, and he was paired with Renshaw the next yr. Their first leadout was a mess, however “inside six months we had it just about down pat”.
Their first Tour collectively could be Cavendish’s most fruitful, successful six phases in all, a uncommon feat (the file in a single Tour is eight). The spotlight was undoubtedly the final day in Paris, successful on the Champs-Elysees the place Renshaw completed behind him in a one-two. It was proof that Renshaw may have been a winner in his personal proper, and “the world’s finest leadout man” was quickly recognised, not least by Cavendish who would eulogise about his buddy.
Renshaw’s temporary was to lead Cavendish by means of the melee and current him close to the end like a king on a cushion. He was sat nav, windshield and safety operation multi functional. “If I had to journey within the wind, if I had to transfer him up in a onerous part… I’d try this bodyguarding across the peloton, since you’re not the most well-liked rider while you’re successful 5 phases within the Tour.”
Renshaw may have been jealous or aggressive however he knew that they had been completely different animals. “Stack us up in opposition to one another in coaching and I may get shut. However the place there’s a end line and a huge prize, he simply goes that 1 or 2 per cent deeper than anyone else, he goes that little bit tougher, hurts himself a little bit extra. He’s obtained that further drive and that crafty decision-making you want to be a winner.”
The group held a deep respect for Cavendish. “When he walked into the room, everybody lifts as a result of they know he’s the most effective,” says Renshaw. And what stood out past the burgeoning assortment of trophies and jerseys was a distinctive capacity to cope with setbacks, to thrive in them.
“One of many moments that almost all shocked me was the yr he had a large crash within the Tour de Suisse. He took off pores and skin from the highest of the shoulders to his butt cheek – he took off his entire again. And he rotated two weeks later for the Tour and was straight again into successful. I simply didn’t see that in lots of different riders.”
Cavendish was a nightmare to race in opposition to. His interval of sprinting dominance was akin to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods, notably on the Tour de France. There have been 180 of the world’s most athletically excellent people on the startline competing for 21 phases, and for many riders simply successful one was an unqualified success. Cavendish gained 23 phases between 2008-2012, at 4.6 phases per Tour.
He was smaller and lighter than a lot of his rivals, a tightly wound ball of muscle, and his greatest weapon was his explosive acceleration. He had an erratic, swaying fashion that was uncommon and intriguing to followers and the media. By his second yr he had developed an aura. He was undisputedly the quickest man on the earth. Rivals had been crushed by centimetres on the end line, however they’d already misplaced to his presence in the beginning.
“For me, Cav was the person to beat,” says Marcel Kittel, the German sprinter who gained 14 Tour phases and developed a fierce rivalry.
Cavendish’s relationship with Renshaw was essential, however following a leadout wasn’t his solely means to win. He may very well be out of the image, his teammates nowhere to be seen, and quietly surf wheels to the entrance to pickpocket a victory somebody thought they owned. “He behaved unpredictably,” says Kittel. “He all the time made it troublesome to anticipate his subsequent transfer.”
Off the bike their relationship may very well be “uncomfortable”, Kittel says, nevertheless it was additionally stuffed with respect. “He hates to lose and after the end you may actually really feel that – for me it’s the identical. However in 2013 he was congratulating me after my first stage win and saying ‘that is going to change your life’. He was welcoming me on the highest stage of sprinters. He made that step in the direction of me, not away.”
Since our interview in Yorkshire in 2019, Cavendish equalled Merckx’s tally of 34 wins, and now stands one away from writing extra historical past in his last Tour de France. Kittle is already retired and commentating on the Tour at 35, and lately they trade tales within the paddock. They’re united by a shared expertise that few perceive, what it seems like to really feel the legs burn and the wind in your face, to really feel one other rider hip-to-hip in a tunnel of deafening noise.
However for all that they share, Kittel factors out that they had been very completely different athletes. “He’s into the historical past of the game, he beloved the previous legends and the tales. I’ve a completely different perspective on biking: I loved it, and I nonetheless take pleasure in it, however I didn’t have ambitions to write historical past.”
The autumn of Cavendish’s profession has been stuffed with adversity: the brutal crash in Vittel that put him out of the 2017 Tour with a damaged shoulder, for which Peter Sagan was disqualified; struggles with psychological well being; repeated bouts of the Epstein-Barr virus which left him barely ready to journey.
His return to the Tour de France, with QuickStep in 2021, was solely by means of a stroke of fortune when the group’s lead sprinter Sam Bennett suffered a knee harm; Cavendish was paired up with Bennett’s famend leadout artist, the steely Danish rider Michael Morkov – one other former rival on monitor and highway. Identical to with Renshaw, they stored lacking one another of their first race on the Tour of Belgium, so earlier than the Tour de France, Morkov and Cavendish sat down for a dialog.
“I had the sensation we had been probably not united to be trustworthy, perhaps not on the identical web page,” Morkov tells The Impartial. “I mentioned to him, ‘look, I actually consider which you can win a stage right here in France’. I feel coming there he didn’t actually consider he may win, however after I mentioned that to him, I may actually see that mild in his eyes. He was prepared.”
Their first win required some improvisation after a crash scuppered their leadout practice close to the end in Fougeres. “I moved him up and dropped him off on the entrance with 500m nonetheless to go. After I got here to the end line I couldn’t consider it when he mentioned he truly gained.”
There was intense expectation on the dash phases at QuickStep, but additionally large strain to get Cavendish by means of the mountains contained in the closing dates every day to keep away from elimination, most notably the brutal double ascent of Mont Ventoux.
“Cav was actually on the restrict that day, he’s within the zone, he doesn’t reply. Then we move the monument of Tom Simpson [the British rider who died on Ventoux in 1967] and abruptly he stops, pulls off his helmet and he bows to the monument. We had been so nervous as a result of he was on the restrict to end the stage.
“Then now we have to move the monument once more. I went to him and I mentioned, ‘mate, I like that you simply make a salute for the monument, however please keep targeted as a result of we’re 5 guys right here who labored the entire day to get you thru’. So he went to the automotive and he picked up a biking cap, and after we handed the monument once more he threw the cap and made one other ‘hiya’ to Tom Simpson. I feel we made the time restrict with lower than a minute.”
After they finally completed, Cavendish slumped because the teammates who had shielded him from the wind bumped fists and patted backs like they’d gained one other stage.
“For me it’s truly a typical Cav story,” says Morkov. “As a result of regardless that there may be a lot strain, he all the time searches for one thing deeper than simply successful the races.”
Basically, you may have to be clinically insane to be a sprinter. People should not have any need to journey a bike at 50mph, shoulder to shoulder with different maniacs whereas sporting lycra. However elite sprinters are wired in a different way. Cavendish competes together with his feelings on the sting as a result of it’s on the sharp edges of biking that he has constructed his profession, the place success is measured by milliseconds.
To thrive and to win, Cavendish wants to be at his most intense; he wants to stroll into a room and demand every thing from everybody, together with himself. And the one means to get himself there may be to really feel strain, like flames on the pores and skin.
“He’s a lot quieter in actual life,” says Renshaw. “I feel you solely see the quarter-hour of fame generally. Yeah, we didn’t simply sit round a campfire and sing. We bloody went head to head with the most effective on the earth.”
In some ways he has gone full circle. Cavendish arrived as a disruptor, an outsider – an “underdog”, as he referred to as himself in his ebook, “who realized to scrap and scratch as a result of it was the one means for me to survive”. Now, greater than ever, he’s the underdog once more. Few consider he’s the quickest within the peloton now, and that’s extra gas.
He has introduced Renshaw again into his nook for this last Tour, who’s consulting Cavendish’s new Astana teammates on leadout precision and, presumably, the whole Mark Cavendish Expertise. That is his final probability to surpass Merckx, and he’ll give every thing to do it.
“Have you learnt what bothers me,” Cavendish said recently. “Everybody calls it Merckx’s file. It’s not Merckx’s file, it’s our file. I gained’t break his file; I’ll break our file.”
He’s agitated. He cares deeply. Simply don’t preserve asking him about it.