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Mark Cavendish - the Manx mystery

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Matt Slater | 17:11 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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?

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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 and Haussler crash in the Tour de SuisseCavendish 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."

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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.

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  • Comment number 1.

    To be honest, and judging by certain cyclists Twitter posts, Cavendish is certainly not the only "prat" on the tour. For me, he's kind of like cycling's Wayne Rooney, fiery and passionate, but nobody can deny he is certainly one of the best in the world.

    Regarding the crash, I think it was partly his fault, but then again, cycling that quickly, after that distance, there is bound to be mistakes. I would probably respect him a little more however if he kept his mouth shut and let his cycling do the talking. He's the quickest man out there by a distance in my opinion, specially with the expert help from his team, Hincapie and co.

    We finally get a British road cyclist who is clearly the best at what he dopes and we slate him for his attitude. You can't always have it both ways. He's a winner, and one of the few that we have, so let's let him get on with it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Can you amend my mistake from "DOPES" in the third paragraph to "does". Thanks.

  • Comment number 3.

    "We finally get a British road cyclist who is clearly the best at what he dopes and we slate him for his attitude."

    Sarcasm or a Freudian slip perhaps?

  • Comment number 4.

    I had the privilege to sit next to Mark on a flight from Manchester this week. I was wary of talking to him because of his reputation, but when I did he was self-effacing, warm and a very relaxed individual. The guy has serious talent, and I don't care about interviews and the press - he is the only rider now who can lift you out of your seat with the sheer speed he can generate to win a race. Best of luck to him this week.

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting article.

    #1 - remember that Hincapie is now a BMC rider, but indeed, when you have an incredibly efficient lead-out train like Columbia has, you're at a major advantage. The key for the other sprinters is to have their teams disrupt this train, which of course is easier said than done. If you're going to play the tactics so you just sit on his wheel, you're almost definately not going to make it past, but Cav is beatable just about in sprints if the teams get their tactics right.

    As far as the green jersey goes, he'll have to hope Hushovd isn't in the same kind of form as last year, because it's a major problem when you have someone who is so consistent in high placings in the sprints and has the ability to pick up points in the intermediate sprints in the mountian stages. Somehow I doubt Hushovd will be able to match last year though. As far as the other sprinters go, I don't see anyone who'll be able to do something similar, and that's the only way Cav will be beaten. Tyler Farrar for example, is not as quick as Cavendish, but is probably his main rival in terms of taking a stage win off him. Yet he doesn't have the ability to take the jersey, so is not Cav's main rival on that front.

  • Comment number 6.

    In his book, he openly admits to being arrogant. When you are as talented as he is, it is not surprising. Then again, he is the first to admit that he owes a vast debt of gratitude to his team who enable him to win races and have helped him when he was in difficulty. At the end of each stage, he immediately thanks them for their help. He has always claimed that he is in the best team in the world which is why he didn't join Sky.

    Cycling is a team sport and sometimes this seems to be lost in all of the hype.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't mind....he is a bleeding genius, how he didnt make the top 3 at SPOTY last year is beyond me....

  • Comment number 8.

    he's a prat.

  • Comment number 9.

    C'mon. Sprinters are meant to be arrogant prats. Cipollini was ten times worse than Cav and we loved him for it. They also need to be a little bit mad. Cav would've watched Abdoujaparov's crash on the Champs when he was a young'un and still thought, "Hmmmmm, wouldn't mind being a sprinter." If a brain is working, then it doesn't think like that!

    In virtually any great sportsman who reaches the very top of their profession, esp. a dangerous profession, there will be something up top that's just a little wrong. It's what makes them practise like they do, take risks like they do, compete like they do and - most importantly - keep on doing it.

    Sometimes it comes out as arrogance (Cav), sometimes aggression (Roy Keane), sometimes self destruction (Gazza). We see these characteristics in the heat of the moment. #6 has pointed out already how generous Cav is to his team-mates after EVERY win and the fact is that his statements are genuine rather than the platitudes and cliches we hear from so many sportsmen. For a guy who is so supposedly arrogant, this is a surprising level of humility to display so soon after crossing the line.

    The bottom line is that Cav is the quickest man on the road, great lead out or not, and for him to simply come out and say it is not arrogance. The facts back him up. We should also enjoy the fact that every time he competes he throws down a hell of a gauntlet to his rivals. This should be a fantastic Tour. Can't wait.

    P.S. re the recent crash. Yes, Cav was at fault. Big deal. Every sprinter gets called up on these things once in a while. Yes, the consequences can be terrible but as suggested above, you don't become a sprinter without being fully aware of what could go wrong.

  • Comment number 10.

    If idiots want to make snap judgements about somebody they have never met based on comments he makes after getting a microphone shoved in his face before he has a chance to come down from his adrenaline high or review footage of a finish again if something's gone wrong, then so be it.

    Being arrogant is not being able to back up what you say. He does. Again and again and again. There is not a single sprinter capable of going toe to toe with him over 200 metres. His team do an incredibale job, but he's still the fastest. Last year we watched him pull away from the filed with massive kicks in the final sprint. They went from looking like close finishes to sometimes being laughable for just how much distance he put between them.

    And just saying "it's because he has such a good team" ignores the pure raw power he has. It's like saying that Indurain and Armstrong only won races because of their team. Yes their teams were massively important, but it's the lonely individuals that used to murder the time trials and mountains. Contador is in a world of his own of course, as he wins even when the team works against him (last year).

    Cav is one of Britains truly World Class athletes and he should be treated as such. I can never understand why in this country we seem to love the sports people that never win the biggest prizes but are nice with it, but we hate the winners because they may not always say the right things in those moments when they are most vulnerable - like that makes them less of a winner!

  • Comment number 11.

    10. At 11:14am on 02 Jul 2010, Beethoven's Left Ear wrote:

    "Cav is one of Britains truly World Class athletes and he should be treated as such. I can never understand why in this country we seem to love the sports people that never win the biggest prizes but are nice with it, but we hate the winners because they may not always say the right things in those moments when they are most vulnerable - like that makes them less of a winner!"

    Amen to that fella.

  • Comment number 12.

    #8 - thanks for your very insightful comment. It must have taken you a long time to construct such in-depth analysis.

    Apart from howard hassen, most people posting here are spot on...99% of all top sportsmen are arrogant. They have to be confident in their own ability.

    I do think Cav puts his foot in it more that others, but as has been mentioned already, its bound to happen when you stick a microphone under someones nose the minute after a race has finished.

    Cav is absolutely the best sprinter in the world, and after a very long drought, we (as in people from the UK/Channel Islands) should be grateful we have a contender for stage wins, and the Green jersey.

  • Comment number 13.

    Compare Cav with the failures in then England Football team. He is the best in the world because he is commited to the sport.

  • Comment number 14.

    Cav is legend, a true winner, unlike the overrated Wiggans!

  • Comment number 15.

    personally i'm fed up to the back teeth of british sportsmen who are 'pleased to have taken part'.. i'm really pleased people like cav and lewis hamilton have come along.. these guys are ruthless. that is why they win... ignore the whingers cav.. keep murdering them.. heh

  • Comment number 16.

    Afternoon all, a few replies from me....

    TJC23 (1) - I agree and Cav was asked about the Rooney comparison in last week's round-table chat with the press. It was a day or two after Rooney's outburst after the Algeria game and Cav said he knew exactly where that came from - an emotional release of utter frustration.

    You were joking about that dopes thing, weren't you?!? We hear all kinds of rumours at this place but I haven't heard that one. Just the opposite, in fact, one of the anti-doping zealots. Good for him.

    lagetcher (5) - Good point re: Hincapie. Cav: "Nobody can replace George on their own, he's a legend. But we've got a strong and diverse team and plenty of guys capable of stepping up." And you're right to mention Farrar - he was the only guy Cav name-checked. I don't think he's in quite the same class as a 100%-fit Cav, though.

    Chris-Goring-By-the-Sea (6) - You're dead right about Cav and his team. There aren't many riders who go to such lengths to thank their team-mates as Cav. In fact, he got quite animated about this point last week, saying that many people fail to understand what pro cycling is all about - ie winning races so the sponsors get their names in the papers. His job is to get across the line first but his team-mates have to get him there so it really is a group effort.

    Deep-Heat (9) - Agreed. It's definitely a sprinter's thing. They're the gung-ho, macho, in-your-face types...just like sprinters in athletics.

    superal43, Simon Richards, super_pig - I think we're in agreement. A little of arrogance is fine if you can back it up and Cav can definitely back it up.

    Cheers all, enjoy the Tour



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