Mark Cavendish interview: Merckx’s Tour record, Sagan’s worlds win, growing up and chilling out

by Shane Stokes


Mark Cavendish was a relaxed figure at last week’s Team Dimension Data training camp in Calpe, Spain. At times a bundle of nerves during the season, the Manxman was much more chilled out as he made his final preparations for 2017. He’s come off the back of a superb first year with his new team, taking four stage wins plus wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, notching up six other road victories plus the madison world championships with Bradley Wiggins.

Cavendish was also second in the Olympic Games and the world road race championships.

Team Dimension Data showed faith in him last season, letting him combine road and track and also leave the Tour de France early to prepare for Rio 2016. The South African squad was richly rewarded with that run of successes, and also showed that in the right environment Cavendish was as fast as ever.

Now 31 years of age, Cavendish will get his season underway next Tuesday in the Dubai Tour. He freely admits that he’s uncertain about his form, saying he is tired after a heavy 2016 season, and doesn’t yet know if his early target of Milan-San Remo is on the cards. Time will tell how well he is going and if another victory in La Primavera could be possible.

However, whatever way that works out, he’s fully focussed on the year’s big prize: returning once again to the Tour de France in premium shape and chasing more victories.

Cavendish is now on a staggering 30 stage wins in that event. He’s inching closer and closer to Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage victories and now, for the first time, fully embraces that target.

“The record was really never on my mind before, but now it is. Realistically it is achievable,” he told CyclingTips.

Cavendish was in relaxed and open form, speaking about a range of topics for half an hour. These include his changing thoughts on that Merckx record, his struggle to accept the outcome of the 2016 world road race championships, his changing approach to life and sport, the keys to his resurgence, the benefits of atypical off-bike pursuits and his goals for the season ahead.

CyclingTips: Mark, let’s start by looking back to what you did last year. What gives you the most satisfaction?

Mark Cavendish: It’s probably the yellow jersey at the Tour. I hadn’t really thought of it last year. People were asking me what would you settle for, and I guess yellow was the only one. Of the four targets I went for, yellow was…I did it.

It was the first time in my career I’d done it. And the way we did it set us up for a pretty good Tour de France.

I don’t frame jerseys and put them up but that is one of the ones, along with my world championship and the green jersey, that will be on the walls.

You started the Tour on the perfect note. That gave you that confidence to keep the momentum going…

Yes, but we knew before that I was going good, the team was going good. It kind of played in our favour to be the underdogs. If we had been favourites going into it, we would perhaps not have won that stage but still win the other stages. It could have played into our hands [to not be favourites].

And Olympics and worlds – is it frustration when you think of them?

Not really. The Olympics – Elia Viviani was the best guy across six events. I did the best I could and I was beaten. I am actually happy with that. Obviously I like to win, but I did the best…I made mistakes, but physically I did the best I could.

The worlds…I still haven’t watched that. I think…I don’t ever think I will. I still think I did everything right. I was just unlucky. Sometimes you get unlucky, sometimes you get lucky. It is easy to think that Sagan does the right thing, but in my eyes he got lucky.

He will never say it because he is Sagan and he is one of the greatest bike riders that ever lived, but I think the circumstances were relevant to him winning the worlds last year. The circumstances that happened in the final…you can never predict. You can predict maybe the left gets blocked, you can predict maybe the right opens. They shouldn’t happen, it is a one in a thousand chance, but for the two to happen at the same time…on that finish, it never happens, so I can’t get my head around it.

In my eyes, it was just the circumstances.

Do you believe in fate, or luck, or destiny?

Sometimes, yes. Everything leading up to the worlds I was so sick. I had a campylobacter infection in my gut and was bedridden for five days. So even to get to the worlds was a big thing. Then I had a heavy crash on the Wednesday before the worlds. Really bad, I went down at 65 kilometres per hour.

I look at those circumstances and someone was saying I was not meant to win the worlds. Now I think it.

I am not really superstitious. I believe you make your own luck, but I don’t know. I can never figure out why I didn’t win the worlds. I don’t think I am bad at reading races, I don’t think I would do anything different. It is how it is.

At the end of the day, we have got a good world champion. Sagan represents the jersey well. It is not like someone who wouldn’t represent the jersey well has won it. It is Peter Sagan, so at least I know my sport is represented well.

Mark Cavendish clocks up victory number four of the 2016 Tour de France.

Accepting losses, losing anger

Early on, Cavendish was a rider known for his highs and lows. When things went well he was visibly on top of the world, elated at the success and also glowing in his praise of his teammates. When he didn’t win, however, his mood slumped and he took losses hard.

Performances in races appeared to have a much more pronounced effect on him than with other riders but, equally, that near-insatiable desire to cross the line first gave him the drive to win as often as he did.

Years on, he’s still successful, but those peaks and troughs have levelled out. Winning remains a buzz; losing, though, isn’t the end of the world. He speaks about his change in mentality and what has modified that view.

Obviously winning and losing are part of the sport. Do you deal with the latter better than before, and if so, is that down to having your family in your life?

Yes, there is more to cycling now, you know. I can turn off. It doesn’t matter how I have done. I am still Daddy to my kids, I am still Mark to my wife. That helps. I can cope.

I don’t know. Maybe it is the fact that I lose more than I used to. You just get used to it. And you mature. You just grow up. You realise it is not just your family, there is more to life.

I love my sport. I can be disappointed, but I don’t really get too angry any more.

There isn’t time travel, but is there anything you would say to the young Mark?

Just take the chip off the shoulder. I have been asked that a few times. Just take the chip off the shoulder.

Where did that come from?

I don’t know. Ah, it is a Gaelic thing, you Irish are the same, you all have a chip on your shoulder! The Manx are the same.

I think we are rebellious by nature.

Yeah…

I always had to fight. I still do now. To think…at 14 people were saying I wouldn’t be a cyclist. And then to think last year I still had to jump through hoops to go to the Olympics. At 31 I still deal with the same things.

I don’t have a gash like I used to on my shoulder, but I still have a chip. But it is all right.

But do you think without that you would still be a success story?

No, not a chance.

So maybe it was necessary at the time to give you that burning ambition?

Yes, maybe.

Because when you look at HTC, yourself but also the team as well, the momentum was incredible. The amount of wins, the hunger…

It is still there. I just have other things now.

If you look at yourself 12 months ago, before you had all the successes that you had, how different are you now than you were then?

A bit more tired… I am more relaxed going into this season. This time last year I was fourth in a World Cup. I don’t think I would be fourth in a World Cup right now. I am quite looking forward to just settling into road racing.

I didn’t see my family last year. I was just consumed. Everything… I guess that is what Froome does every year, but I don’t really work like that, so…

Returning to the top of world sprinting

Cavendish’s early momentum in the sport was incredible but in more recent years the number of victories began to drop. Some of that was down to bad luck: he crashed out on the opening stage of the 2014 Tour de France, for example, and was convinced that otherwise he would have had a successful campaign.

But at other times things didn’t seem to gel with Team Sky and Omega Pharma QuickStep, with the approach of those teams not quite leading to the same haul of results as he enjoyed with HTC. Things changed with Team Dimension Data, though, with that environment appearing to suit him perfectly and leading to a happier, more successful rider. He discusses the various factors which came together in 2016 to make it the year it was.

Is it true that you felt that the track racing was the key to getting some more top end speed?

I think it definitely doesn’t hurt to get speed, to get power…for sure. But I still believe you can replicate that with physical training on the road. My big thing was the racing nous, the racing head. Learning to race again. Judging distances and speed. That was something I got from the track that you kind of lose on the road. And that definitely paid off big time.

So do you feel that you need to do some track this year?

I can’t. There is nothing on, unless I go to the world championships in Hong Kong and miss San Remo or something. It doesn’t really fit. Since the UCI segregated track and road, it is very, very difficult. If I want to do the Olympics I have to start again in 2018, to do those little races to qualify.

But the team gave me enough time off last year that I kind of owe them a bit.

And you say racing nous…now that you have that back now, I guess the instinct is going to stay with you from that.

I think so. The brain is like a muscle, it needs to keep working and keep active. That is why I do my puzzles and all. Obviously there is nothing that helps racing like replicating racing.

The Rubik’s cube is impressive. I remember having one before and it just wrecked my head.

It is just an algorithm. As you can tell, I don’t think in a lingual sense. My language-type stuff isn’t great. My mathematics side..I was always good at that at school.

Did you play chess ever?

Yeah.

And what are you like at that?

Actually I am not great. It used to be this big thing that I played chess. I liked it, I played it all the time, but I don’t think I was great. I can play chess, but I am not going to be a grand master any time.

Obviously the increase in wins coincides with the move to Dimension Data. What is better about this team? Is it the faith they have in you?

In two words, it is less pressure. I still want to win, but I have got the freedom to do things my own way. I don’t have to go to a race to win. I don’t know. In terms of the management on my other teams…QuickStep were great in letting me do what I wanted to prepare but, obviously, as with anything with a big budget team, I had a massive pay cheque so with that comes the pressure to win.

I don’t always think it was me. I think a lot of problems were… Mark Renshaw had a bad time. But obviously as the highest-paid rider on the team, I am the one who takes the brunt of it on the shoulders. I think that maybe in QuickStep Mark lost me a few races. But it will never go back to Mark, it will go back to me.

I think especially for him, the reduction of pressure since coming here has probably been really helpful in him getting back to his old ways.

Is there a sense that QuickStep has been successful for so long that it is almost expecting wins, whereas for Dimension Data, when you were having success, it was a huge deal? The team was stepping up a level from Pro Continental. If so, is that a more positive environment to be in, where the wins are…

…they are not guaranteed?

Yes, they are not taken for granted…

Absolutely, that is the biggest thing. Everyone is happy. It is a star team rather than a team of stars.

I think Bernie Eisel has made a massive difference as well, having Bernie back. Just everything before the sprint, the whole day. Even in the bedroom, he just keeps me on the level. He keeps my energy down. That definitely helps.

Roger Hammond has been incredible. I have never worked with Roger before as a director but I can safely say he is the best director I have ever have. Like, I have learned stuff again this year. Maybe it was arrogant, but I didn’t think I had anything else to learn.

We went to Qatar. I’d won Qatar before, and I learned more in Qatar as well from Roger. I thought I knew how to ride in wind but actually there was a lot more I had to learn. Roger is so good at talking to people, getting something through.

Even if he wants to kick off with someone he doesn’t single them out, embarrass them. But he will get it through in a way that is constructive.

You talk about Bernie and how you get on. Is it just the combination of your personalities?

I think so. We are best friends. We really are. He is my best friend. There is never any jealousy. We argue, like a husband and wife, but five minutes later we have just moved on. We don’t even have to apologise.

He is one of those old school pros. He knows how to move around the peloton. He knows where to be when. So I don’t have to say it. It is not like I follow him because I don’t know…I can trust where he is going to go. That is nice.

If I can be relaxed, it gives you that much more energy at the end for sprinting.

So you were saying that before the race, calming you is the benefit?

It is not really calming me..it is not like I get agitated. I just use too much energy. It is not necessarily getting agitated. I just relax. If you relax you are not… You might not even know you are using energy, but if you relax you are definitely not.

Switching off, switching on

The notion of sparing energy and focus for when it counts is one that seems to work for Cavendish. He’s a very intense, driven competitor when he’s chasing a target. Letting go of that focus at the right times is important in keeping his batteries charged, and he’s found the right combination of circumstances to do that while also remaining sharp.

Cavendish discusses his distractions, talks about how they help him to be the athlete he is and also lays out his targets for the upcoming season.

Away from the bike, what are your interests?

First of all my family. My wife is my idol. It is incredible how she looks after three young kids and then a big kid. She will cook four different meals. We have got an 11 year old, a four year old and a 31 year old.

She comes to see me on the Grand Tours. It is never a stress. She makes it look easy. She super intelligent, she makes me laugh. She keeps me just going. And my kids are just everything to me. Everything.

I have got a close group of friends that I like to see. And I like my motorbikes.

What do you have?

I have got mainly off-road ones. I don’t really go on the road…I know how dangerous it is on a push bike on the road and I don’t really want to [chance it].

I have done some track days and one of my best friends is a Moto GP rider. On the Isle of Man, it is trials bikes, motocross bikes. It is nice to get out afternoons and do a bit of motocross.

Does it complement the bike when you do that? Does it help at all?

Physically, not really. It is quite good for your core stability. Two years ago when I won Dubai, it was snowing in the Isle of Man the week before. So I was on the trials bike all week. It was quite good – there was a world superbike champion, a world cycling champion, a world endure champion in me, Cal [Cal Crutchlow] and David Knight out on the trials bikes. That was my training for Dubai and I won, so it can’t be that bad!

Still, like anything…driving fast…if you are doing anything fast, it is that ability to think fast, to work things out. It all complements everything.

What are your targets this year?

The Tour de France is the most important thing always. Everything is based around July. The hardest thing this year…I finished at the end of November. I am normally already three weeks into training. So I needed time off after 13 months. The hardest thing was to make sure I didn’t come in too fresh and start building on that and die during the year. I had to make sure I didn’t get too close to the season.

I had to fuck everything up except the Tour de France because obviously the Tour de France is the most important. I still have to do everything else.

So the Tour comes before everything. That’s in July. Before that, I don’t know. I don’t know how I am right now. I am obviously going to San Remo but I really won’t know until I start racing if it is a realistic thing.

It is not that I don’t want to ride well, I can’t say much more right now.

On social media you mentioned the British road race nationals being on the Isle of Man this year…

Yeah. I need to call the organisers. I think they obviously want to do the lap of the TT circuit, and that is great. The finish circuits…it is easy for the organiser to think of a circuit without thinking of what promotes the island or what makes a good race that will go until the end.

It is not for me… The actual finish circuit I think they have now I would win, which is great, but I don’t think it best represents the Isle of Man. A different circuit would be harder for me to win on, but it would be beautiful to ride. That would be great.

I will go and look at the worlds course in May. I think it is too hard. If it is like Italy, I may as well not go. If it is like anything else, I can always go as a wildcard. It is best to see that and see how long I prolong my season.

I know that people always to talk about the Merckx record and you don’t like to focus on it. But you are getting close now, 30 wins to his 34. So is it more on your mind?

Yeah, now it is. It really never was before, but now realistically it is achievable. I have heard it so much that I may as well. Even the people around me, my team and that, talk about it now which never happened before. It means it has to be a goal.

As I said, I will give the Tour de France the respect it deserves and be comfortable just to do my best. If I am only good enough to win one more stage in my career, it is the Tour de France and I would be happy with that. But yeah, it would be nice to get it.

It is pretty huge. It must be really exciting to be that close…

It is now. It has become more than just the media talking about it this year. Now I am on 30 wins, it is a realistic target.

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