The story behind the story: talking life and its lessons with Mark Cavendish

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Things quickly became tense at the post-race press conference at the 2015 Tour of Turkey. Mark Cavendish had shown superb form in the race, taking stages one, two and seven and starting the final day in Istanbul as the favourite to win the final sprint.

However his plans unravelled inside the final 1,200 metres when Caja Rural-Seguros RGA rider Lluís Mas jumped clear and held on to take the win. Cavendish was second, and was visibly frustrated.

When the opening question in the press conference wasn’t to his liking, things went awry.

Cavendish was asked to give his perspective on how things played out in the finale. The journalist was seeking his version of events; instead, he got a very blunt answer. “I was second.”

A follow up question received an equally terse response.

Cavendish had lost, he wasn’t happy, and what he deemed foolish questions simply wouldn’t be entertained. Those asking questions were inviting ridicule if they got things wrong.

It wasn’t the first time journalists had found themselves in this position. Although he’s been doing press conferences over a decade, the Manxman can have a short fuse.

He is one of the best athletes in the sport, a hugely successful sprinter who has amassed 30 stage wins in the Tour de France. He’s also highly-strung, and has the tendency to bristle when he’s asked the wrong thing. Put the wrong question to him, or even ask something in a clumsy way, and things can become tense.

For example, asked at a press conference at the 2015 Tour de San Luis how he could be 100% sure that his competitors were clean, he had a blunt response for the journalist.

“Can you tell me 100% that one of these journalists isn’t fucking your wife?”

An unexpected interview

And yet, there is a flipside to all of this. When Cavendish is in a good mood (usually after winning), is asked non-standard questions (try to think outside the box) or is shown the respect he desires (acknowledging his achievements definitely helps), he can be an incredibly engaging interviewee.

When he opens up, he can be frank, self-deprecating and insightful.

He’s a strong character with strong opinions and can give solid gold quotes.

He’s also one of the most successful British sportspeople of all time and his words have plenty of weight.

In January of this year he and his Dimension Data squad had a training camp based in a hotel in Calpe, Spain. Several other teams were also present, including the An Post Chainreaction squad. The latter is run by Sean Kelly and, as is the case each year, a group of Irish cyclists of all ages had travelled from Ireland to spend time riding with the former world number one. They were eating dinner in the hotel restaurant when they saw Cavendish was there.

“Wow, there’s Cavendish,” one of them said. “What’s he like?”

“It depends on his mood, really,” I answered. “He can be great in interviews, or he can be difficult. It depends on how things are going for him, and also how questions are phrased.

“Get things right, and he’s great. Get it wrong, and you are in trouble.”

Shortly afterwards, I went to get a serving of fruit after my food. Cavendish was standing close to the same part of the buffet. I didn’t want to intrude but he saw me out of the corner of his eye and said hello.

Later that day I sent an email to Team Dimension Data’s press officer asking if any of the team might be up for a pre-season chat. To be honest, I hadn’t sought or expected an interview with Cavendish, but word soon came back. “You can have half an hour with Mark tomorrow evening,” he said.

At the allocated time the next day, I was a little uncertain how things would go. Just before Cavendish sat down to talk he was approached in the hotel bar by an Irish cycling fan who wanted a photo taken with him. Cavendish looked uncomfortable until the fan called Sean Kelly over. The two champions started talking, Cavendish relaxed and a little banter started between them.

When the interview started, he was in a perfectly reasonable mood. He spoke about his 2016 season, his first-ever Tour yellow jersey, his four stage wins and his Olympic and world championship campaigns.

The conversation then turned to the roles of luck and destiny in sporting success, and also about how he copes with losing races.

As a younger rider Cavendish was livid when things went wrong. On stage four of the 2010 Tour de France he was out of position and out of pace, finishing 12th behind Alessandro Petacchi.

He arrived at the High Road team bus, dropped his bike to the ground and climbed on board. Perhaps half a minute later his helmet came rolling down the steps of the bus, apparently thrown in temper.

Years later, though, he explained that having a family had taken the edge off his disappointment. He still doesn’t like losing, but the extreme, hours-long reaction doesn’t occur any more.

“There is more than cycling now, you know,” he explained. “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.

“Maybe it is the fact that I lose more than I used to,” he continued. “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.”

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

Mark Cavendish: 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.

MC: Yeah…

The final minutes headed in a different direction than typical interviews. An hour or so before the chat I’d told the team press officer that I wanted to ask Cavendish what he had learned from life.

That message was passed on to him in order to give him time to think about such an introspective topic. When asked about those lessons, he spoke very frankly. In fact, the questions appeared to really engage him.

And perhaps that’s one key to diffusing his potential explosiveness. Stay clear of predictable questioning. Don’t ask things he’s been asked one hundred times before. Show recognition for what he has achieved.

Be interested, and interesting.

After the interview ended the team press officer asked how it went. “Good, I think,” I replied.

He thought so too. “I’ve seen Mark do many interviews,” he said. “Watching him, I think he enjoyed that one.”

Having seen Cavendish bristle at some press conference questions, that was good to hear.

As journalists our job is not to entertain successful sportspeople. But encouraging and enabling them to open up about their thoughts and emotions can be a rewarding feeling.

That’s particularly so with strong personalities such as Mark Cavendish.

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