Tucked away in a tiny room in Budapest’s Congress Center are a few rows of small red chairs facing a pull-down projector screen. Soon, Mark Cavendish appears on it, looming large, towering over everyone. He’s back at the Giro d’Italia for the first time in nine years.
A lot has happened in that time. From the halcyon days at Quick-Step to the slow demise thanks to the Epstein-Barr virus, before a comeback of epic proportions to tie the Eddy Merckx Tour de France stage record. But the ups and down don’t stop. This winter just gone saw more difficult times – a horrible crash at the Gent Six Day followed by an even more horrific armed robbery at his home, Cavendish assaulted and his wife threatened as his kids watched on.
“Course it is,” Cavendish says of coming back from that crash where his family were escorted from the trackside while the severity of his condition was unknown. “Because I was winning early [this season] people tend to forget I had a punctured lung at the end of November. I think…of course it’s hard. But I work hard, it doesn’t come easy.” He shakes his head, brow furrowed.
It’s completely fair enough that Mark Cavendish is done with all the bullshit that comes with being a professional cyclist. He recently spoke about not wanting to feed narratives anymore, to be more proud of who he sees in the mirror than on the television, the brash Cav of yesteryear replaced by a man with a family who is still paid to ride bikes.
“I don’t want to have to be what someone expects me to be, I just want to be me,” he said. When his pre-Giro press conference rattles through at least 20 questions in the record time of 11 minutes, it’s clear that Cavendish’s fast finish has lasted through to May 2022. Having accomplished all there is to accomplish, he still has the desire to work hard and race the hardest bike races, but just don’t ask me any stupid questions, okay?
Last year, before your unexpected and majorly successful Tour de France comeback, you said you had been nervous in the build-up. What’s the difference in feeling this year?
A long pause ensues.
“Yeah. I’ve prepared for this race and I hadn’t prepared for the Tour last year so I feel quite relaxed.”
Does that relaxed feeling mean he’s more confident about winning a stage at this Giro compared to how he felt at the beginning of the Tour last year?
“I’m relaxed, we’ve got a good team. We’re on good form.”
No-one is daring to mention this summer’s Tour, and to be honest there’s not much more to say. At present, it seems Fabio Jakobsen will be Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s designated sprinter and Cavendish will be on standby in case of injury to the Dutchman. Moreover, Cavendish has said he doesn’t want the continued questioning to cause friction in what has otherwise been a good friendship as both riders brought themselves back from the abyss. The Manxman’s wish is respected and the topic is left untouched, yet still, the spikiness endures.
“The best way to kick-off a Grand Tour is to poke the Cav! Sets the tone and motivates him!” a colleague texts, also watching the tense to-ing and fro-ing.
One reporter asks whether Cavendish has considered the fact he is only five stages away from Mario Cipollini’s all-time Grand Tour stage win record of 57 and if it is a goal for the sprinter?
Confusion entails, Cavendish can’t understand the question over the connection, which is probably a minor blessing and the journalist gets off lightly in his dressing down.
“It’s probably not a goal because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Finally, we arrive at some questions Cavendish does feel like answering. Ones that don’t centre on the man himself, his ambitions, his motivations, what’s going on inside his head.
His sprint chances this Giro have been significantly bolstered by the late inclusion of leadout lynchpin Michael Mørkøv.
“I’m incredibly happy, I love riding with Morky, it’s not just Morky though, we have a strong team. With Bert, Ballo,” the nicknames being reeled off make the squad sound more like a reincarnated cast of Sesame Street than a world-class cycling outfit.
“It’s nice to have people you trust, it’s not just Michael, it’s the guys ahead of him he can follow. I have an incredible three guys ahead of me, I think that’s the biggest factor of confidence I have.”
There is the proper answer. Last year at the Tour, after his first stage win, Cavendish praised the calibre of teammates and equipment he now had at his disposal that gave him the confidence to get back to winning ways at a Grand Tour. “There are a few opportunities,” he confirmed of the multitude of sprint stages ahead. “I’m pretty excited.”