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For many years there was talk in the media and elsewhere about Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins and whether or not Mark Cavendish could equal it; now, according to the Manxman, he doesn’t approach the sport with specific goals about what he wants to do by the end of his career.
“Not so much any more, no,” he said when asked by CyclingTips on Friday if he had specific long-term ambitions.
“I would like to remain successful. I am super-happy with the group around, I am super-happy with Etixx Quick Step and I am happy with how my career is.
“I will just continue trying to win and I will be satisfied.”
The approach is one which perhaps keeps some degree of pressure off him. He still wants to have success, of course, but he’s not going to talk about it, not going to lay out plans which may or may not work out.
So, no talk of the Merckx record, or another worlds, or future green jerseys. Wait and see. What comes comes.
What he was willing to say was that his desire to be successful still burns. It keeps him hungry and enables him to get stuck in to the hurly-burly of the bunch sprints.
“I just love it. That’s it. I just love to win,” he said.
Cavendish was speaking prior to the start of stage six of the Presidential Tour of Turkey. Sat on a bench adjacent to the van his team is using for the 2.HC-ranked race, the Briton faced an initial small group of four writers.
The team area in Denizli was an open public area and this huddle started to quickly expand, with other journalists and photographers arriving and then a cluster of fans.
Cavendish is one of the biggest names in the race, so that’s to be expected. As the questions continued and the audience grew, the hemisphere around him swelling in size and the number of hands holding recording devices becoming more numerous, he crossed his arms and shortened his answers.
While team-mate Tom Boonen – who spoke to the group immediately afterwards – seemed comfortable in the limelight, fielding questions and providing responses, Cavendish looked like he’d rather be elsewhere.
He loves cycling, loves winning, but speaking to the press is something that you feel he’d rather do without.
Still, he sat and talked, giving his thoughts on several issues. The Tour of Turkey was of course one of those; he’s picked up two sprint wins thus far in the race and while Friday’s stage was a summit finish, two further opportunities remain before the curtain falls on this edition.
“I am happy to come here with Etixx QuickStep and show a strong few days,” he said, making clear that he considered the race a success.
“We won the first two stages and we tried since. I am happy with how it is going.
“Tom [Boonen] is coming back from injury, I am starting to build up my form for the Tour and we are getting our leadout right. So things are pretty good.”
“The team is running brilliantly together”
Cavendish has had a superb start to the season, clocking up eight wins including those two stages in Turkey, another double in the Dubai Tour plus the overall classification, one win in the Tour de San Luis and single-day success in the Clasica de Almeria and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
He may well have contended for a second Milan-San Remo title but he picked up an illness racing in South Africa and was below par for the Italian event.
Now well on the way back to full fitness, his return to racing in the Tour of Turkey has shown that his training has been going well.
In a broader sense, what he has done this year has shown that he has completely recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered on stage one of last year’s Tour de France and has lost none of his natural speed.
His team, too, has flourished in 2015.
“We have had an incredibly successful start to the season,” he affirmed. “Etixx QuickStep is, I think, the team that has won the most races. If you look at our top three finishers, it is way beyond what any other team has done.
“I think the team is running brilliantly together across the board in sprints and Classics and smaller stage races.”
“If I was in the same position as he was, you guys would be saying it is the end of my career”
At the same time that Cavendish has been riding the crest of a wave, having his most successful season start in quite some time, his Tour de France sprint rival Marcel Kittel has been experiencing precisely the opposite.
He started off on a good note in Australia, winning the Down Under Classic on January 18. However his best finish in the Tour Down Under itself was 18th place on stage one, with every other day putting him outside the top 100 in the results.
He then went on to the Dubai Tour and struggled there, being absent from the bunch finishes and netting a distant 104th overall.
He was subsequently diagnosed with a virus and only returned to racing on Friday in the Tour of Yorkshire, just over two months before the start of the Tour. He abandoned from stage one of that.
Asked if he thought it was difficult for a rider in that position to catch back up again, Cavendish responded in an unexpected way.
The question was about Kittel, but the answer was about himself.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. “I know if I was in the same position as he was, if I hadn’t raced for five months, you guys would all be saying it is the end of my career.
“I have always had a thing…even when I am sick or coming back, I always race. I am a professional bike rider, I am paid money by my team and I got to represent my team.
“Even when I have been ill, I have always gone and raced and perhaps not got good results and got a little bit slammed by people who don’t really know the sport so well. I guess…[pauses]…I guess I have always got wins on the back of it anyway.”
Regardless of how Kittel is going, Cavendish will have his own tunnel vision in place when the Tour starts. Asked if the Eddy Merckx record was on his mind and if he was keen to make up for lost time after crashing out of last year’s event on day one, he gave a lengthy pause before answering.
“I would like to go the Tour de France and win stages,” he said, simply, then added. “I was disappointed to crash out last year on the first stage.”
”Everyone just grows up”
Speaking on Monday after he won the second stage of the Tour of Turkey, Cavendish was asked about another successful Etixx-QuickStep rider this year; the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe.
The 22 year old was for many the revelation of the Ardennes Classics, netting seventh in the Amstel Gold Race, second in Flèche Wallonne and then finishing as runner-up in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I really like him,” said Cavendish then. “Since he has started in the team, there is something about him. He has got a winner’s attitude on him.”
“Not in riding style but definitely in his personality, he reminds me of myself when I was young,” he said. He then added with a smile – and to the laughs of those listening – “there is a little bit of asshole in there.
“I really like it. You can see…obviously his riding style is different to mine, but in his mentality I really see him with a big career.”
Referring Friday to that response, CyclingTips asked Cavendish how he would compare himself now to when he was starting off. In other words, in what way is he different to the young rider he was?
“Everybody grows up,” he answered. “It is easy to remember that I was young. I was winning when I was young.
“Everybody just grows up. You just learn responsibilities more.”
So was that down to age, the success he has had, or his family?
“I think it is a mixture of everything,” he responded. “I think most guys my age are going to be different to how they were at 21, 22 years old, for many reasons.”
Cavendish is now a couple of weeks away from his 30th birthday. He’s not yet near the end of his career, of course, but getting his thoughts on what he has done thus far was of interest.
CyclingTips asked him if there was one particular achievement that he was most proud of. Would he refer to his rainbow jersey, his 25 Tour stage wins, or perhaps the green jersey he took in 2011?
It’s not any one of those. His answer is more a general one, his response not giving specifics.
There’s time enough for all that analysis when the wheels stop turning.
“I am incredibly lucky to be part of many successful teams and many successes. I have had some great memories of my career.”
He then paused, and gave a brief laugh. “This is kind of like a question like I am approaching the end of my career…
“I haven’t really looked back on what I have done. I have the rest of my life after I finish to do that…”