Of all of cycling’s greatest sprinters – of which there are many true legends including Erik Zabel and Mario Cipollini – Mark “Cav” Cavendish is undeniably, irrefutably and unconditionally the greatest of all time. With palmares that include 30 Tour de France stage victories, 15-stage and two team time-trial victories at the Giro d’Italia, Milan-San Remo and the World Championships, Cavendish has in the past decade been the most exciting man to watch in professional cycling.
Part of that is due to the dynamic of his chosen specialisation – the balls-out, near-death, brutal carnage of the sprint finish. Part of it is simply that he is supernaturally fast. When you watch Cavendish explode into action in the last 100 metres of a race, achieve critical speed, transform the potential energy into kinetic like no other man on earth, you almost expect it to be accompanied by a Chuck Yeager-like sonic boom, as he explodes through the sound barrier.
To understand just how fast Cavendish can go on a seven-kilogram machine consisting of two wheels and a scant carbon-fibre fuselage, you need only YouTube the final stage of the 2010 Tour de France. In the last half-kilometre of the world’s most prestigious sprint, the finish at Paris Champs Elysées, the peloton flies by Place de la Concorde into the two final turns. In the lead, Thor Hushovd – a massive Viking, a genetic freak of a cyclist – is pounding his pedals with every last ounce of energy. Behind him, the great Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi is also riding for his very life, capitalising on Hushovd’s slipstream to surge past him.
Then, in the background, all on his own, as if riding in a totally different race, Cavendish blasts past them both as if they were standing still. But far from a watt-generating brutalist, Cavendish has constantly demonstrated racing intellect second to none. Indeed, he redefined the dynamics and tactics of the sprint game by famously creating the sport’s most intimidating sprint train of all time.
To be in the peloton and see Cavendish’s sprint train surging to the front must be akin to hearing the hoof beat of Genghis Khan’s Mongol raiders at the outskirts of your village. Which is to say, at once awesome and terrifying. Then to see the concussive double-tap consisting most frequently of George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw – the sport’s greatest lead-out man, who once head-butted an overly aggressive rival rider out of the way – is simply glorious. To witness the famous sprint train in action, watch the final stage of the 2009 or 2011 Tour de France.
In the 2009 stage with 200 of the world’s greatest cyclists, pedalling as hard as the heart, lungs and legs will allow them, with a single kilometre to go, the legendary Hincapie pulls away from the peloton with Renshaw and Cavendish in his slipstream. He surges forward as if compelled by a tractor beam from a mighty alien mother ship. Again, in the 2011 tour, Renshaw seamlessly tows Cavendish away from him to launch the Manx Missile at a rate of speed that leaves every other elite rider in the world relegated to the role of witness to his transcendent sixth stage victory that Tour as he became the first person in history to win the most prestigious sprint in the world three times in a row. Incredibly, he later added to that tally with what was to become his fourth in a row the year after.
Being a devout cycling fan, meeting Mark Cavendish was akin to shaking hands with Kal-El, the man from the planet Krypton endowed with super powers from the sun and dedicated to doing good on earth. But this fan-boy moment soon transformed into an extraordinary shared experience as I joined a four-way conversation between Cavendish, the maverick watchmaker Richard Mille – whom Cavendish admires greatly – and their mutual friend Yann Le Moenner, the CEO of Amaury Sports, which oversees the Tour de France. We are in a private jet that is ferrying us to Le Castellet to meet F1 legend Alain Prost for a day of driving and cycling, which is Prost’s second devotional preoccupation.
Here then, is the conversation that left me with a deep admiration for Cavendish’s maturity, intellect and code of ethics.
Wei Koh: Yann, you were the one that introduced Richard to Mark?
Yann Le Moenner: Richard told me that if there was one athlete he would like to meet, and perhaps do something with, it would be Mark Cavendish. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Mark is a huge watch fan and was already corresponding from time to time with Richard. So, when they finally met during the 2016 Tour, it was a great moment. I remember the first thing Richard did was take off his watch and hand it to Mark, saying: “This is for you.” Mark just started trembling.
Richard Mille: He was in tears and when I went to see him on the starting line the next day, he kept telling me: “I can’t believe it.” I said the watch would bring him good luck and that day he won the stage, it was his 30th Tour de France stage victory and his fourth of the 2016 Tour. There is a great picture of him crossing the finish in his Dimension Data jersey making the sign for four stages and you can see the watch clearly on his wrist.
Wei Koh: So, you were already a Richard Mille fan, Mark?
Mark Cavendish: I love watches. I love all mechanical objects. Even when I was a little kid I always had a watch. For me it was a way to express individuality. But more than that, watches also symbolise a special moment or achievement in my life. It is very rare in cycling for the team to get recognition for its achievements. Sure, there is one guy who crosses the finish line but I think the whole team should go on the podium. It’s like the striker who scores a goal – that’s great but he wouldn’t be able to achieve that without his entire team. So, I like to commemorate the achievement by getting special watches for the whole team.
When I won the green jersey, I bought nine Rolex Submariners with green dials and bezels. I inscribed my teammates’ names on the back of each watch along with “Tour de France 2011” so that they will always remember what we achieved together. When I won the red jersey at the Giro d’Italia, I bought nine Panerai watches with red alligator straps for the team. When I won the World Championships, I asked IWC to make me nine Portugieser watches with the World Championship stripes on them – each came in a beautiful box with a plaque with my teammates’ names engraved on it. For me watches are beautiful objects but they are also capable of expressing the feelings and the respect you have for the people that are special to you in your life.
Richard Mille (laughing): He is a great guy, no? I first realised Mark was a fan of my watches because he sent me some glasses – a pair of Oakleys that he had worn during a stage victory of the Tour de France. And we started corresponding like this. You see, for me it is not important to work with every single championship athlete in the world. Rather, it is important to find people with whom the connection is genuine, so the sincerity of our relationship increases every year, every time we meet.
Mark Cavendish: After I met Richard, Yann called me to tell me that my agent at the time had, unbeknownst to me, contacted him trying to strike up a business deal. I was fuming. To me he’s a god. I never wanted autographs of other athletes or film stars, but Richard sent me his book with this incredible handwritten note and that book never leaves my living-room coffee table. It was so touching. So, I remember I was in the line at the airport about to fly to the Olympics when Yann called to tell me about this potentially embarrassing situation. I was hearing his voice and just going red. I was so angry but also so embarrassed. I immediately messaged Richard and asked if I could call him. He got on the phone and I told him: “Look this just isn’t how I work. That’s not the kind of guy I am.”
Richard Mille: I remember Mark saying: “I really apologise. This person was acting without consulting me.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, what a gentleman”. Mark is a guy with incredible integrity and incredible character. I had so much respect for how he handled this.
Yann Le Moenner: When Richard, who is my dear friend, explained the situation to me I told him: “Mark is not like this. We need to speak to him.” And I immediately called him and he reached out to Richard that minute.
Mark Cavendish: I’m deeply appreciative of Yann for this. Here he is, the CEO of one of the biggest sports organisations in the world and he’s taking his time to look out for a friend. That’s what I love about him. He’s a man that lives up to his word. He’s always so positive. At the Tour de France, you can understand the amount of stress that everyone is feeling but you can always feel the care, respect and affection he has for the athletes.
Wei Koh: It strikes me that integrity is very important to you, Mark?
Mark Cavendish: Since I was young, I’ve tried to live by one rule. You don’t take any crap, but you also don’t give it back. I’ve always tried to come from this place and likewise, I’ve always sought people who come from this place. All my partners have been long-standing partners. I signed with Nike when I was 17 – and it was for no money at first. Then I became World Champion when I was 18 and I got offered bigger and bigger deals from rival brands. And I said: “Look, I buy Nike and that’s what I’m going to wear. It has to be real.” It’s the same thing with friends. I’ve always been careful not to surround myself with idiots. My friends are all incredibly real people and it doesn’t matter to me what they do. They could be friends from school, or they could be people I’ve met through cycling, or a man like Richard. I like to message people just to say “How are you?” with no ulterior motive other than the fact I care about how my friends are doing.
Richard Mille: This is why people love to listen to Mark speak, because there is zero crap. He has a very frank and colourful way of expressing himself, but it is charming because it has real sense and intelligence. You never get anything artificial from him.
Mark Cavendish: I’ve always said what I wanted and what I felt. The difference today is that I’ve had a life and I’ve learned from it. When you are 18 and you become World Champion you haven’t yet learned life. And so I said some things that were utter rubbish – I was a little idiot. But I recognise that I was a kid. I didn’t grow up in private. I grew up in public.
Richard Mille: What changed you?
Mark Cavendish: The things that changed me most were that I grew up, I met a great woman, got married and had children. And that gave me a new perspective on life. I am the same person but I have a different view on the world. Today I’m a 32-year-old man, but I still pay for what I said when I was 18. Although I still say what I want, I am a lot more aware of how it will be viewed by the world.
Wei Koh: You’re from the Isle of Man. Is there a big cycling culture there?
Mark Cavendish: The Isle of Man is known for motorcycling but bicycling as a sport is not too far behind. There is a big culture for the sport where I’m from and you would have groups of 50 to 60 cyclists riding together on the weekend. When I look back at my childhood I was always on a bicycle.
Yann Le Moenner: How did you start racing?
Mark Cavendish (laughing): My brother and I had some behavioural problems when we were young. We were out of control. But I liked my bike. Someone told us about these races for kids and suggested that I go and try them. So, I showed up for my first race against these guys that were on road bikes and I was on my BMX. I was last in that race and it drove me crazy. I went home and I told my mother and she was laughing at me. I explained that maybe if I had a bike with gears I could do better. So, I got a bike for my birthday. She got me a mountain bike and I needed a road bike, but I didn’t care. I remember my birthday was on a Monday and the race was on a Tuesday. It was pouring with rain and I was the only person to show up, so the race was cancelled and I had to wait until the following week. I went down to the next race and I won. Then I went the next week and I won again. And after five weeks and winning five races I thought: “This is easy. I want to go to England and race against the guys there.” I bought myself a second-hand road bike and from the beginning I was thinking of ways to go faster. The gear levers were on the down tube, so I taught myself to shift gears with my knee. It wasn’t until later when I met professional racers that I discovered they used to do the exact same thing on these older bikes.
Richard Mille: At what point did you realise you had some special ability?
Mark Cavendish: When I was 12 I went to the UK on my awful bike and I started winning races. So, the next year I entered the British Championship – I borrowed a bike from someone and I absolutely smashed it. Then someone suggested I try the velodrome. I didn’t know what it was, but I borrowed another bike and won the British Championship. I just got on the bike and went fast. I ended up breaking four British records and winning four British championships. I was 13 years old.
When I was 14 I did a race the day before the North-West Championships and I lapped the field twice, so I asked if I could race with the Under 16s. I did and I won. I wanted to go to the qualifying race for the Youth Olympics and I won that race but then they told me I was too young to go to the actual event. That’s when I knew that I was good. This can come off like I am being arrogant, but the point is that every successful elite athlete needs to have this inner confidence and self-assurance. Without this you can never get to the next level.
Yann Le Moenner: What I like about Mark is that he was from an early age a student of cycling and its culture.
Mark Cavendish: Absolutely. At 14 I already had a plan. Around this time there were two major teams dominating cycling – US Postal and Telekom. At that point, I’d been learning French as my second language and I asked that if I passed my exams I could start learning German because I wanted to ride for Telekom.
Wei Koh: Is it true you worked at a bank for two years so you could move to Europe to race?
Mark Cavendish: Yes. When I was 16 I was thinking how to turn pro. At the time, a lot of my friends were becoming under-18 cyclists. But I knew this wouldn’t lead to a pro contract, for that to happen I knew I had to move to Europe. So, I started working at Barclays and I saved and saved and saved my money. I was always open with the bank. I told them when I turned 18 I was going to pursue my career as a cyclist.
I still raced. I was angry because the World Championships were in Belgium on a flat course that favoured sprinters. By this time, I knew I was a sprinter. I had won on hilly courses and time trials but I knew my speciality was the sprint. When you don’t have time to train, you can still go good on the flat on pure talent, but for the hills you have to train. The selection courses were always hilly and so I wasn’t winning anything and didn’t get selected.
Finally, I left the bank when I turned 18. I had planned to go and race in Holland, but luckily the British Under-23 programme started. This was the only stroke of luck I’ve ever had, where circumstances out of my control aligned in my favour. At first, they didn’t want to take me, but when they asked me about race scenarios, something clicked and all the answers I gave them showed that I understood how to race, so they gave me this wild card slot.
I had been working in a bank for two years, so physically I was in poor shape. I was getting caned and caned and caned. The other guys used to give me a hard time. They would go as hard as they could on me. And I thought to myself: “All you are doing is making me better.” Each time I struggled I knew it was making me better. The thing is you have to understand that it is a process and you have to put in the work to improve. There is no other way. But I love the honesty of this. We went to the year’s first race in a senior national series and I won it. That year I went on to win the World Championships. I was just 19 years old.
Straight away I was offered contracts, but I wanted to ride for Telekom. They told me that I was too young but they offered a compromise. They would pay me and I would go and live in Germany and ride for a smaller team [Team Sparkasse, a feeder squad for the mighty T-Mobile, formerly known as Telekom]. I did well, winning two stages in the Tour de Berlin, among other things. I turned pro in 2007 and started to make friendships that will last a lifetime. I met one of my best friends, Bernhard Eisel. He was employed by Telekom to be the sprinter and he believed in me. In training camp, I had started beating him and, instead of being upset, he supported me. I’ll never forget him doing that.
Richard Mille: What was it like riding at Telekom. Were you there at the same time Erik Zabel was racing?
Mark Cavendish: Yes. Zabel was always good to me. I still have a great relationship with him. I turned pro and I immediately started winning races and wanted to see how I would perform at a World Tour level. So, after winning two stages in Catalonia, I wrote a letter to the management of Telekom. I was 21 at the time and it was a crazily opportunistic thing to do. I told them: “My dream is to win the Tour de France. This year it’s starting in England with a time trial and a sprint. Please let me do this. Either I’ll go and I’ll win or I will realise the level is so above me that I will understand how much more I need to progress.”
They took me and I immediately realised I was way out of my depth. In our sport, you have amateur cycling, then you have professional cycling, then you have World Tour Cycling, then on top of all this you have the Tour de France. At every bike race you’ve got guys who are injured, guys who don’t really want to be there, guys who are trying out their first big race. But at the Tour you’ve got 200 of the world’s best cyclists, all at the peak physical form they can be in, all understanding that their careers will be defined by what they do in the race. Eighty per cent of any team’s budget is dedicated to the Tour de France. At my first Tour, I crashed on my first two stages. On the Alps, Axel Merckx was staying with me on the climb and I remember the vision just going from my eyes from the effort. But I knew then what I had to do in the winter to get better.
Wei Koh: What gives you the resilience to come back from defeat?
Mark Cavendish: I can remember being in kindergarten. I was two or three years old and organising these running races that I would always have to win. In school everything that I did, I had to be the best. Not just the best that I could be, I had to win. Of course, I didn’t always and then I had to figure out a way to improve, to get better so I could win. I truly believe that anybody can achieve anything if they put their mind to it and if they put in the work.
I continued racing that year and when winter came I spoke to Roger Hammond, who has been a mentor throughout my career. He asked me what part of the race was the hardest and I replied: “I don’t know, the hills?” And he said: “No, the parts where everybody is going hard. So, when you train, you have to train hard all the time.” That winter I literally smashed myself. Sun, wind, rain it didn’t matter – I went out every day and every day I went really hard. Just full on. I rode until I was throwing up.
Richard Mille: Did it work?
Mark Cavendish: In 2008, the year after my baptism of fire, I went back to the Tour and I won four stages. I remember my first stage win (Stage 5), it was a classic finish. We had caught up with the breakaway group but there was still one rider ahead of us. My now lead-out man, the incredible Mark Renshaw, was racing for Thor Hushovd at the time and I used Mark to slingshot me forward. When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe it. I held my helmet in disbelief. One stage of the Tour de France makes a rider’s career.
Wei Koh: When did you and your team come up with the famous sprint train?
Mark Cavendish: In 2008, we had developed the strategy around the sprint train and we were winning 80 per cent of the sprints. We understood that we couldn’t win the overall Tour de France, we decided to target winning 100 per cent of the sprints. When you had guys like Tony Martin, George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw it began to be intimidating to the other teams. Part of it was strategy but more importantly when you race together, you bond in the way I imagine soldiers do. You come to trust and rely on each other and you’d rather die than let your teammate down. The friendships you make go deeper than any other relationships because of this. In 2010, I crashed in Stage 1 of the Tour but still came back to win five more stages.
If I’d stopped there I would have still made my mark, but I won three more stages that year. Then I stopped to go to the Olympics. I went to Beijing. But [Bradley] Wiggins, who I was paired with, fell sick. I was gutted because I had really wanted to try for the win at the Champs Elysées at the Tour de France and I told myself I would never ever leave the Tour again for any reason. In 2009, I went back to the Tour and I won six stages. I remember on my second win (Stage 3) that year, our sponsor HTC had just come up with the first aluminum unibody smart phone – before Apple. It was called the Hero, and was a really cool phone, but it hadn’t come out yet. I told them before the stage that at the finish line I’d do something special and they should give me the phone. That’s when I did the sign of a phone as I crossed the finish and sure enough the next day they got me the Hero.
Wei Koh: In 2011, you won five more stages for a total of 20. You also won the World Championship again and, the same year, you were awarded your MBE. Why do you think that the British suddenly came to dominate world cycling around this time?
Mark Cavendish: There’s a core group of us and we are all about the same age. We were all trained by the same guy, Rod Ellingworth, and he’s still my mentor to this day. We grew up loving racing. We weren’t picked by Rod based on how many watts we generated or how fast we could go up a hill. We were picked because of how we raced. We were picked because of our work ethic. We were picked because of how we interacted with each other. And you saw that when we rode together in Team GB. So, Sky came from a place with a great foundation.
Richard Mille: But was it complicated to be a sprinter in a team like Sky which is so focused on winning the yellow jersey?
Mark Cavendish: Well, I grew up watching Telekom and I believe that we could have won the green jersey as well as the yellow. A team with the strongest guys could do it, but that wasn’t Sky’s objective. I don’t ever feel bitter about it, because Sky was created to win the yellow jersey and the yellow jersey has a significance that no other prize in sport has.
Richard Mille: Well I think you impress everyone when you say you were carrying water bottles for other riders and even setting the pace on the Pyrenean climb.
Mark Cavendish: Like I said, in a team you have to demonstrate your work ethic. But after that Tour I knew that as a sprinter the situation wasn’t the best for me, so then I joined Quick-Step. In 2013, I’d won 24 stages of the Tour de France and then in 2014, I crashed and had to drop out. I had a lot of fun at Quick-Step and I still have a great relationship with them. I had the dream of riding the Grand Classics, I would love to ride Paris-Roubaix, but I never had the opportunity to race there.
Then Dimension Data came on the scene and it was a different kind of team, representing a charity. They were the underdogs and doing something more than advertising on billboards and so I joined and I got the hunger back.
Richard Mille: The cycling world is buzzing about the idea of you matching Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour de France stage wins. Do you think it’s possible?
Mark Cavendish: You know, the idea of matching Eddy’s record was never something I mentioned. It was something that the British media has come up with. People were watching us because we were winning, but the British public kept asking: “If you win five or six stages, why aren’t you winning the Tour de France?” So, the British cycling media had to explain how the Tour works and they also needed to explain what it was that I did. What I was known for was winning stages. I would never, ever underestimate the significance of winning even one stage. That is the highlight of most professional cyclist’s careers. It is disrespectful not to see the incredible work that goes into achieving a single stage win, not just for an individual but for a team. And every stage win for me has been something very special. I always say, if I’m only ever good enough to win one more stage, then so be it. But then last year when I hit 30 stages, I said: “Blimey, I’m four stages from the record.” The thing is, physiologically I could never win the Tour de France, with my body morphology I could never compete in the mountains with the best climbers. But you have to find a way to keep yourself motivated to constantly find the target in front of you.
Richard Mille: Do you feel that this year because of how you went out of the Tour [with Peter Sagan taking Cavendish down], the injury and the controversy and the fact that you didn’t have any opportunity at the Tour de France, it gives you more motivation to win next year?
Mark Cavendish: Had I gone to the Tour and been dropped the first day, then dropped the second day and then crashed on the third then I might have said to myself: “Maybe it’s time to stop for this edition.” The fact is that leading up to the Tour I was sick, really sick and the only thing that got me through my sickness was the thought of the Tour de France. Originally, I was out for six weeks and, when I started to recover, I only had two months to get in shape. I went out super hard the first three days, knowing it was the worst thing I could possibly do. And I just killed myself. I ended up spending two more weeks in bed.
I had to force myself to take it easy. Four hours in the morning, two hours at home and then four more hours in the evening. Normally I would do rides of six or seven hours at a time. But I had to halve this so as not to build the same fatigue. And the whole time all I could think of was the Tour, the Tour, the Tour! Then, going out the way I did was disappointing. But maybe it happened for a reason because I got the hunger back stronger and I want to win more than ever.
Richard Mille: Would you be ready to kill yourself again training for 2018?
Mark Cavendish: Yes, winter of 2017 has been spent preparing for 2018; killing myself. Because I have an objective.
Richard Mille: So, you are as hungry for victory as before?
Mark Cavendish: In the beginning I was angry, I had a chip on my shoulder and I was fighting against the world. It’s different now. I have a family and I want them to be proud of me. I’m away from them a lot of the time – with my racing and training schedule, I only see them 60 days a year. I have to make the time I’m away from them count for something. It has to be significant. That’s my motivation. So, I have the same hunger but at the same time it’s totally different. When I was young it was selfish, it was for me. Now it is for my family.
Portrait Photography: Jake Walters
Photographer’s Assistant: Christy John White
Fashion Direction: Jo Grzeszczuk
Fashion Assistant: Veronica Perez
Grooming: Bunny Hazel Clarke