Our friends at Rouleur magazine caught up with Mark Cavendish recently to talk about fame, success, inspiration, intensity and the crash that ended the Manxman’s 2014 Tour de France almost before it started.
Read an exclusive extract from the interview and find out how you can grab a Cav figure and save 10% on Rouleur.
Mark Cavendish changed cycling. He revolutionised sprinting by taking the leadouts to a higher level, working on his own aerodynamics and being an early adopter of skinsuits and aero helmets. For a while, it made him the clear favourite in every single flat race he rode.
“In 2009 I contested 27 sprints. I won 25 and was second in two – I messed up in Tirreno and went too early into a headwind, and was getting sick in Missouri,” he says.
But cycling, in turn, changed around him, and his strike rate has gone down in the last few seasons. His lead-out at OPQS is as capable as his HTC lead-out was, if not quite as well-oiled, but they cannot impose themselves as HTC could, because the other teams have worked out how to disrupt things. They’re also a team with multiple goals – sprints for Cavendish, but also stage wins for Matteo Trentin, time-trials for Tony Martin, while Giant, for example, were built entirely round Kittel at the Tour.
Sprints are messier and more tactical now, with multiple lead-out trains all striking at different times. The GC men are riding at the front of the bunch deep into the final few kilometres. Even though Cavendish has still achieved 11 wins so far in a season that will be counted as his most disappointing ever, his reduced win rate at the Tour in the last two years shows how far the goalposts have been moved.
My opinion was that Cavendish has also slowed. We haven’t seen him in full cry at the Tour since 2012, when he freelanced his way to three brilliant stage wins while his Sky team was otherwise occupied supporting Bradley Wiggins’s yellow jersey ambitions. In 2013, he came off the back of five stage wins and the points jersey at the Giro, but only won two at the Tour. Riding the entire Giro may have taken the edge off his speed, but then he got sick coming into the Tour, and just looked slower than Kittel. He wasn’t beaten by much in Paris, especially given that he came from two wheels behind Kittel into the sprint, and rode “over the roughest part of the road,” but he looked laboured compared to previous seasons.
However, Cavendish says he’s just as fast now as he has always been. The tactics have become more complex, but in terms of simple speed, he is still confident in his ability.
He offers a case study in how things are: that fateful first stage of the 2014 Tour.
“I was in the form of my life going into the Tour,” he says. “I was a little heavier than at the Olympics, but so much stronger. In London, I worked really hard to get down to 67 kilos, and lost muscle mass. I’ve kept that muscle this time, and was at 69 kilos. I was really, really on it.”
Stage one was not a straightforward sprint, even notwithstanding the fact that the first sprint of the Tour de France is always more bar brawl than Queensberry Rules. The route had taken in a tricky traverse of the Pennines, with a hard series of climbs. And the final five kilometres contained a sapping series of drags, one taking the riders inside a kilometre to go, the last heading up to the finish line. “Bend, 180 metres to go,” Cavendish adds, where most of us might have rounded up to 200, because we neither have nor need the attention to detail or photographic memory that Cavendish does about finishing sprints.
“I was flying. I was in the 12 when everybody else was in the 11. We’d lost Petacchi, so Renshaw had to do some more work and come over the brow of the hill with a kilometre to go, and down. Giant went with Degenkolb, and Renshaw was starting to get on the limit a bit, so he was flicking his elbow for me to go.
“I let his wheel go five metres then ran up, used the speed and went around him, floating up in the 12. I wanted to go on the bend at 180 to go.
“It wasn’t a good finish for Kittel, in my opinion. I knew Sagan would go early. 180 is still quite far on a hard finish like that, but I knew he’d go as soon as he saw the finish line – I was on his wheel.”
The crux was that bend. The television cameras show a small posse of riders attacking it on the inside, led by Peter Sagan. In the middle of the road, drifting outwards: Mark Cavendish, his head against Simon Gerrans’s shoulder. Gerrans, his escape route to the left shut off by Europcar’s Bryan Coquard, had nowhere to go, his bike locked with Cavendish’s and they were catapulted hard onto the road.
“I didn’t cause the crash. My momentum took me into him and Coquard was leaning on him on the other side, our handlebars locked and we went down.
“I could have prevented it, but then,” he adds, “I’d have lost the stage.”
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