Mark Cavendish begins life with Sky in desert
Mark Cavendish sits, cross-legged, on a patch of grass in the desert.
The Qatar sun, radiating a pleasant but not stifling 24C on this February morning, brings such a bright white light from the 26-year-old's rainbow jersey - gained for winning last year's world road race title - that the man standing above him must wear shades to look down and hold a conversation.
That man, in his 60s, fits his own white shirt a little less easily than he once did. He is Eddy Merckx, perhaps the greatest road cyclist in history, with three of those world titles to his name alongside five Tour de France wins and countless other honours.
When Cavendish starts races, he sets out to break records, and many of those belong to Merckx. But this year, Cavendish might accomplish something Merckx never achieved: an Olympic victory.
Things were different in the Belgian's day, and nobody is pretending he retired in 1978 with much regret that his only Games (the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo) resulted in a 12th-place finish.
Many other cyclists don't take the Olympics all that seriously. For them it's the big tours, the classics, the world championships. But Cavendish sees the Games as a separate entity.
Mark Cavendish encounters a new kind of lead-out train in Qatar. Photo: Getty Images
"At the Olympics, I'm carrying the weight of Great Britain," he tells us later.
"That's what's so special about it. The Tour de France, the Tour of Qatar, that's my professional life: I get paid to ride a bike. Simple as. The Olympics is something different, you're putting on a jersey that represents the flag of the country you're born under.
"I'm a patriotic guy. To ride the Olympics for my country, especially in London, with it being the first medal on offer, on a course that suits us... it's quite exciting. I'm looking forward to the end of July."
If all goes to plan, Cavendish will be led to the brink of Olympic gold by four British team-mates on 28 July, then unleashed in the dying seconds to apply the afterburner and inch past his rivals. Not everybody is convinced the London 2012 course will pan out that way, but that is the Cavendish trademark and the dream.
He demonstrated how it ought to look in Copenhagen last September, when he won his rainbow jersey in exactly that fashion. A matter of days later, he confirmed a deal to leave the now-defunct HTC-Highroad cycling outfit for Team Sky, overseen by British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford. On 11 October, his move was announced to the world.
Cavendish wins 2011 world road race gold in Copenhagen
The switch had been widely anticipated. Cavendish in Team Sky colours, alongside fellow superstar compatriot Bradley Wiggins, seemed to make sense from every angle. Cavendish either used to race with, or grew up riding alongside, many of his new team-mates. His Austrian HTC-Highroad colleague Bernie Eisel, who stays close to Cavendish on and off the road, came with him.
But Cavendish and Team Sky appeared a particularly good fit because of a man named Rod Ellingworth.
Cycling fans know who Ellingworth is. The chances are, many of those who voted Cavendish the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after his sensational 2011 season do not. Cavendish might not be a world champion, Tour de France green jersey winner or Olympic favourite without Ellingworth.
"He just knows what it is to be a bike rider," says Cavendish of the man so often described as his mentor. "He loves it, he lives for it, it's more than a job for him - it's a life, it's a commitment. He's got as much passion for it as I have. That's why we get on so well."
While Cavendish was racing for HTC-Highroad his opportunities to talk with Ellingworth, Team Sky's race coach, were limited. In pro road cycling, you cannot pick up the phone and have long cycling chats with other teams' staff - even if Ellingworth doubled as the British team coach.
"We worked together preparing the GB team for the 2011 Worlds," continues Cavendish, "but it was a case of very definitely having to keep my professional team and GB as separates.
"We did that really well but it's nice to finally be back with a group of riders who I've grown up with, a lot of old team-mates, and management who've known and nurtured me since I was really young. Touring with Rod on a daily basis is the best thing for me."
Ellingworth, who will celebrate his 40th birthday on the penultimate night of the London Olympics, has a coaching pedigree which far exceeds that he earned as a road cyclist. Now Cavendish is back fully under his wing, in a team packed with British talent.
"For the Olympics it's absolutely crucial [for Cavendish to race with Team Sky]," says Ellingworth. "In every single race he'll be riding alongside guys who, potentially, he's going to ride the Olympics with.
"Mark's a good bike rider and he would make it somehow, in his own way. But with us, he knows why we're working with him. Nobody's trying to get anything from him or make something off the back of Mark. He's with us because he trusts us all.
"He knows why you're being honest: because you want him to be the best he can be. For sure, in this team, he can go a long, long way."
It's hard to go a long way in Qatar. A nation of one city, Doha, and few major roads, the week-long tour is over in a flash. Cavendish finishes with two stage victories and a crash, limping over the line of the final stage sans helmet having tangled himself up in the sprint.
"My helmet disintegrated and I was sliding on the back of my head for quite a while," he says, a few hours later. "I'll need some treatment on that for the next couple of days. Apart from that I didn't take too much skin off: a bit of my elbow, my hip, normal cycling wounds."
This is where the road to glory in 2012 begins: a desert nation, sand whipped up in the crosswinds, camels paraded at the start line, sheikhs reclining at the finish.