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He’s long been the fastest man on two wheels in cycling; in the future, all things going to plan, Mark Cavendish may well test his talents in motorbike racing. Speaking one day before the start of the Dubai Tour, Cavendish was asked about the possibility that he could swop the pedals for an engine at some point down the line.
“Anything is possible, you know,” he told journalists at the pre-race press conference on Monday. “I will just look at my options for the short term and the long term and see what I do with my future.”
Journalists’ interest in a possible change of sport was piqued by a Esquire Middle East interview published at the end of January. In that article, Cavendish spoke about his love for fast cars and bikes and, when asked if he ever wished he was a F1 driver, said that he preferred two wheels.
“I don’t think I’m good enough,” he said of F1. “Everybody thinks that it’s like driving a car down the promenade, it’s totally not the same. To be honest, I prefer motorbikes more; I would like to race them instead.”
That prompted the interviewer to ask if that was what was coming next after cycling. “In all seriousness, I think so,” Cavendish answered.
However, his Dimension Data team needn’t panic: in that article, Cavendish said that he felt that he had ‘a fair few years’ left in his professional career.
Motor bikes may be a passion, but so too his racing. And with Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour stage win record of 34 victories just four off what Cavendish has now, he’s got a motivating target to aim for this year and beyond.
‘The first race is always an unknown’
Cavendish went into last year’s Tour with 30 such wins in his pocket. He had a superb 2016, netting four stage wins, Olympic silver and a spate of other successes. However 2017 would prove to be considerably more difficult. He was fatigued due to the intensity of 2016 and started the year on the back foot. He then contracted glandular fever, and missed a chunk of training and racing time before returning to racing in the Tour of Slovenia.
He lined out in the Tour de France and clocked up fourth place on stage two. Confidence boosted by that, he looked like he was in a position to win stage four but came down in a clash with Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe). Shoulder fractured by the impact, he had to withdraw from the race.
Speaking on Monday, he confirmed his shoulder is fully solid again. As for his form, he’s got in some good training, but admits he’s a little in the dark about where he is.
“It [the first race] is always an unknown,” he told journalists. “It doesn’t matter how well you have training, or how fit you feel you are. There is always an unknown until you actually race.
“There is no expectation from myself or the team. I have got a month here in the Middle East – I go from the Dubai Tour to the Tour of Oman, then I am going straight back to the Abu Dhabi Tour. So it is a nice month out here.”
Cavendish said that he originally had planned to just ride in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but, in looking at the travel time back to Europe between the two and the related disruption, he and the team decided that he would just stay and ride the block of three events.
That should give him a strong base to build towards the rest of the season. Ideally, it will also put him in perfect shape for Milan-San Remo.
He won the Classic in 2009 and netting a second would be a massive moment for him, should it transpire. “I would like to give it a go…” he said, without elaborating further.
Paris-Roubaix is also on his radar, although not as a personal objective. “I think Roubaix is in the plan,” he confirmed. “But not to try and win it, but to ride it… It is the only race I can really support my teammates. Edvald [Boasson Hagen] wants to go for it. There are not many races I can go and repay him for what he does for me, so I will be excited to line up again for that.”
Home away from home
April is still quite some time away, though, and Dubai is biggest on his mind right now. Cavendish sat centre stage at Monday’s press conference, beside 2016 and 2017 race winner Marcel Kittel, and close to several other big competitors.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) won twice at the recent Mallorca Challenge and should be one of his big rivals this week.
So too Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Elia Viviani (QuickStep Floors) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis).
Each of those riders will start the race on Tuesday determined to prove a point. Even though the Tour is a long way off, winning against the best sprinters in the world would give them an early psychological edge. Sprinting well has much to do with morale, after all, and building momentum is important.
Twelve months ago Cavendish finished eighth overall, 26 seconds back, and took stage placings of third and fourth along the way. While he said on Monday that he believed he hadn’t yet contracted glandular fever by that point, it is clear that his batteries were running low then after a very hectic 2016.
His build-up this time has been better, and he will hope to land his first win of the year on one of the upcoming stages.
If things go to plan, he might also be in the run for the final overall win. He took the GC in 2015, beating Degenkolb by six seconds overall, and treasures that memory.
“It was really good,” he said. “It was the first year without a time trial, so we wanted to go for it. I was with QuickStep at the time and we had a great leadout train. I think obviously the amount of sprints makes it appetising, but that finish into Hatta Dam…
“What made me most proud that time was it was actually the hardest stage that year. We did a few more climbs that year and it was really down to the team looking after me, getting through it for the GC.”
Cavendish limited his losses on that short, ferociously steep uphill finish, then grabbed the overall victory the following day when he won into Dubai.
Time will tell if his form is sharp enough to stage a repeat, but he’s definitely motivated to be here.
“I love the United Arab Emirates. I spend a lot of time here, both professionally and in my spare time,” he said, essentially confirming it is a home away from home. Indeed, in last month’s Esquire interview, he suggested he could move to the Middle East when he retires from cycling.
“I come over with my family a good bit. So it is a place that I really know well. To have my friends here see me win [in 2015]…that was really nice.”
If the opportunity is there again this week, expect him to seize the chance. This might be an early season race, but if the legs are good, he’ll be fully motivated.