Mark Cavendish - the Manx mystery
As I was heading out of the office last week to interview British cycling star Mark Cavendish, I asked the boss what kind of thing he wanted.
"Erm, you know, Tour de France, green jersey, Lance, Wiggins...oh, and why he is such a head case."
So there you have it. Just 25, only four years into his professional career and Cavendish already has the kind of reputation it normally takes a lifetime of boorish behaviour to acquire.
The HTC-Columbia rider is not one to wait around for that, though, he has been on a mission in the bad boy stakes of late. A feud with another sprinter in his own team, a public slap-on-the-wrist for a two-fingered victory salute and a massive crash that provoked renewed debate about his riding style, it has been quite a year already.
But how did this happen? What is it about this polite, softly-spoken bloke that attracts such bad press and so many raised eyebrows? Is Cavendish Britain's most misunderstood sportsman?
Five of the Brits in this year's Tour give their inside views on the race and who might win
To answer these questions, or at least have a crack at answering them, we should probably rewind a couple of years to the Beijing Olympics.
Let down by the aforementioned Bradley Wiggins (exhausted after his endeavours in the pursuits) in the two-man Madison, the newly-minted "Manx Missile" was the only member of Team GB's track cycling squad to leave China empty-handed.
That was not part of the deal when Cavendish agreed to quit the Tour de France early and he took the setback personally. Still fuming weeks later, the young sprinter effectively drew a line under his track cycling career (a decision he would reconsider) and it took months before he was ready to talk to Wiggins again.
Cav's dark mood did not last long, though (they never do), as he carried his late-season form into 2009. Already considered as the master of the bunch sprint, he stunned the cycling world by winning the Milan-San Remo, one of the most prestigious one-day races on the pro calendar. He was now in exalted company.
Cavendish caused controversy when he was involved in a spectacular crash during the Tour de Suisse
His status as the fastest man in the peloton was underlined over the next few months as he claimed three stages at the Giro d'Italia and two more at the Tour de Suisse. He was now ready for his third crack at the Tour de France and this time he was targeting Paris and the green jersey, the prize for the race's points competition.
But before that he published "Boy Racer", his first autobiography and an initial attempt - in print, anyway - to set the record straight about his public image. My abiding memory of the press conference is Cavendish trying to wipe the smile off his face as he explained it wasn't really an autobiography at all but was actually a book about why he sometimes comes across as a bit of a tool.
Later that day I interviewed him in Hyde Park and he was honest, modest and patient as we messed about with our camera and microphones. The idea that this was cycling's biggest prima donna made no sense at all: confident in his own (proven) abilities, yes; arrogant so-and-so, no.
And then it was off to France. Suddenly his desire to justify his post-race behaviour made more sense. On the one hand you had Cav the Great, on the other you had Cav the Git.
His six stage wins, including a stunning victory on the Champs-Elysees, illustrated everything that was good about the man from Douglas. His reaction to losing a 13th-place finish for forcing rival Thor Hushovd too close to the barriers at the end of stage 14 illustrated all the bad bits.
What should have been a one-point gain in the race for green became a 13-point swing for the Norwegian (who would go on to win by 10). Cavendish went ballistic, blasting officials for what he still considers a "terrible decision" and Hushovd for crying foul when he knew he was fairly beaten.
Truth be told, it was contentious but it was not Hushovd's fault. The decision was made before his Cervelo team had even lodged a protest.
Cavendish, being Cavendish, realised this and issued an apology, acknowledging his rival's efforts in the mountains made him a worthy winner of a prize for the most consistent finisher, not the best sprinter.
The whole episode was vintage Cav. The all-consuming desire, the explosion of emotion at the finish line and the ill-considered words when asked for reaction with his heart still thumping and adrenalin off the charts, it was all there.
It is unfair really. What do we expect when we thrust a microphone under the nose of a man so committed to winning? Platitudes? Analysis? A "big shout" to friends at home?
Which brings me back to the recent shenanigans. A split from his childhood sweetheart, dental surgery that caused an infection, the spat with Andre Greipel, a couple of head-to-head defeats, the V-sign ruckus and that crash - Cavendish readily admits "this has been the toughest period of my professional career".
But he also has the good sense to know that much of this has been self-inflicted - "the dental thing was for aesthetic reasons, if I had known then that it would ruin my winter I would have put up with wonky teeth for a bit longer" - and is also a product of him being the guy at the top of the heap.
None of these setbacks, however, appear to have dented his titanium-plated confidence, or his ability to provide good copy.
Is he still the fastest sprinter? "Yes. Nobody is invincible but I am still the man to beat in the last 200 metres of a race."
Can he win the green jersey this year? "It should take care of itself if I reach my goals. There are six definite sprints (in this year's Tour) and nine possibles. I will be going full gas in all of them."
Does he regret that victory salute? "It wasn't intended to be vulgar. I meant it in the same way the English archers did at Agincourt. You know, 'I've still got it!' I know where that gesture came from."
Does he accept responsibility for the Swiss crash? "I'm not going to say I was blameless but I don't believe I was the only one in the wrong. (Heinrich Haussler) was the one with his head down."
What about the peloton's protest against him the following day? "There was no protest. It was about eight guys from his team and the rest of peloton said 'don't be so stupid, let's race'. The majority of guys love the sport like I do and want to win races sportingly."
Mark Cavendish on his form, Tour de France chances and relationship with the rest of the peloton
But, for me, the most interesting thing he said was when I asked about people's perception of his character, largely based on his celebrations and post-race interviews.
"Nobody wants to be perceived as a prat and I hope I'm not because I'm not that way at home. The people I love know that. But I know I can seem that way," he admitted.
"I have an ability to turn my emotions off whilst I do my job - which is winning bike races for my team. But at the end of a race it all comes out, so it's a good thing and a bad thing.
"But ultimately if people want to make a judgement on my personality based on 30 seconds of what they've seen at the end of a race - which they have no idea about - then they're not worth worrying about."
He's right, of course, apart from one thing. He does worry about it. The message boards, the blogs, the Cycling News race reports. He worries about all of it.
And I think it this sensitive, almost vulnerable, side that ultimately makes him such a likeable bloke...when he's not rolling through the finishing line in emotional-release mode, that is.