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Mark Cavendish begins life with Sky in desert

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Ollie Williams | 08:39 UK time, Tuesday, 14 February 2012

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 rides Tour of Qatar with camels in background

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.

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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.

The Tour of Oman is next on the list. These destinations may not sound much like Box Hill but Cavendish, chasing world, Olympic and Tour success in the year to come, is exactly where he wants to be.


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice read! the first deserved SPOTY for a while! well done that man!!

  • Comment number 2.

    If anyone has got their head around the year ahead it will be Cav. Although we're all along for the ride I guess. Should be a real rollercoaster, preferably with not too many falls like the one in Qatar.

    Would be good to hear more from Ellingworth as a sports coach - if you could get an interview.

  • Comment number 3.

    We should all hope for the best, and probably refrain from criticism if it doesn't come off. Many of these professional cyclists are astonishingly brave and resilient- you have only to consider THE tour last year when some of them of several nationalities kept going despite serious injuries. These men (and women: GB girls are doing very well) are tough!

  • Comment number 4.

    if you get an interview with Ellingworth ask him how intends to balance Cav between the Tour de France and the Olympics.

  • Comment number 5.

    If you get an interview with Ellingworth, surely you should ask himhow he'll balance Cav with Wiggins, Green and Yellow jerseys! Surely one team can't take both, which one holds more interest?

    Nice blog though, great read Ollie (and no comments of racism in sight! :-) )

  • Comment number 6.

    #5 I've seen this written before, that one team could never take both jerseys - I'm afraid I follow cycling but probably not as closely as you do, could you (or Ollie) explain why not? Surely if Wiggins is going for Yellow and himself is a good sprinter, which he is, he could act as part of the lead out team for Cav and finish with the same time in the sprints (+1 or 2 secs), thus still maintaining position in the overall standings. I imagine I'm missing something fairly crucial there, so please educate me!!

  • Comment number 7.

    @ #6 - It could be done. I'd be willing to bet that this current Sky lineup could be the ones to do it. My concerns would be in the mountains - Cav would need team mates to keep him within the time limit, and Wiggins would need support up front as well. The question then is how do you split the team without leaving either rider under supported. The sprint stages aren't really the issue - as a GC contender, Wiggins should be safely within the front pack during these stages.

  • Comment number 8.

    "Surely if Wiggins is going for Yellow and himself is a good sprinter, which he is, he could act as part of the lead out team for Cav and finish with the same time in the sprints (+1 or 2 secs), thus still maintaining position in the overall standings"

    You don't want your GC man getting tired out doing a lead at the front of the peleton, taking the wind. You want him tucked away having an easier ride in the pack. So effectively the team is at least one man down for the sprints. Conversely you don't want your sprinter as part of the team hunting down rival GC riders who are in a break. So it is pretty hard to balance both sets of objectives.

  • Comment number 9.

    A good read, thanks! I'm really looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds…

  • Comment number 10.

    # 6- Odarroch, its quite simple why its very difficult for a team to go for both yellow and green and it all comes down to domestiques (riders whose primary purpose is to help the leaders in the team) and recovery time for these domestiques.

    The contenders for yellow (aka Wiggins in this case) ideally would look for the flat days to expend as little energy as possible or recover from a gruelling mountain stage which along with the time trails is where yellow is won. By pulling on the front and being part of Cavendish's lead out this would expel more energy than it would take to sit in the middle of the group on a flat stage thus hurt Wiggins chances in theory.

    The number of domestiques is also affected. Ideally a GC contender (for yellow) would want as many of his team mates as possible riding to help his ambitions in the mountains/hilly stages. This becomes more difficult if your team have been riding at the front on the flat stages as they will not be possible to expend the required for Wiggens and Cavendish on every stage.

    I personally think this problem is being exaggerated in Sky's case. Wiggins will have the time trails to shine and will have Froome as a super domestique in the mountains and also Uran as a climbing specialist domestique which should be sufficient with the other riders chipping in intermittently. Sitting in the train and not pulling for Wiggins could also help him avoid crashes like last year as well. So long as Froome and Uran are not pulling in the train I think the balance would be ok.

    As for Cavendish he will not have the HTC style lead out but he would not have that anywhere I don’t think we will ever see that quality of train ever again. BUT having said this he will have Bernie/Swift and possibly pate and other riders chipping in and to be honest he possibly could win 9 stages on this years Tour he could pick up 4-5 wins without a full train with his pace and awareness in the sprints.

    Hope that makes sence/helps expalins the pottential problem of divided goals in the Tour.

  • Comment number 11.

    @6 The trouble is that while Wiggins has shown himself to be effective in a lead out train in the past (though not the main lead out man), he will pay for those efforts when it really counts, in the mountains. Also, splits in the peloton don't happen all that often and those who have been part of the train tend to drop back after putting in their big effort, so it would only be to Wiggins' disadvantage.

    As for whether it can be done, I'm sure it can. Of course there is some compromise, but Sky is one of the strongest teams out there to achieve something like that. Sky is also probably the only team that has such a strong yellow + green jersey contender in the peloton. BMC have Hushovd and Evans, but it looks like Hushovd won't have free rein at the Tour. Lotto have Greipel and Van den Broeck (and Vanandert), but both are lesser contenders for green and yellow. So the fact is we rarely see a team with a genuinely good chance of achieving this to say that it is almost impossible.

    It promises to be a great Tour. Cavendish will obviously be favourite for green, but potentially coming up against Greipel, Kittel and Goss should prove his biggest challenge yet in the Tour, easily. Wiggins meanwhile is only 1 of a huge number of contenders. I thought last year was wide open, but this has potential to be even more so.

    A. Schleck
    F. Schleck
    Van den Broeck

    Anyway, that's the Tour. For now we have a whole lot of other races to get excited about.

  • Comment number 12.

    # 11 lagetcher,
    That is a great list for the GC I have a feeling that a couple more names could even be thrown in!! The plus point of the Contador ban is the GC is so wide open the Tour will be exciting.

    Cav is faster than both Griepal and Goss but the martins are fine enough to keep it very exciting like you said his toughest year so far.

    How much have you seen of Kittel? Heard he won 16 races last year and one at the Tour of Spain, looking forward to seeing him and Cav head to head, do you think he will be in the tour of France this year?

  • Comment number 13.

    froome not on that list ?

  • Comment number 14.

    And this Cavendish is the same guy who didn't rate an Olympic gold as being in a 'cyclist's top 10 achievements' following him not winning one in Beijing?!

  • Comment number 15.

    If it was anyone other than Cavendish, I'd say the expectations had got ridiculous. Winning four or more stages in the Tour de France is a hell of an achievement. Doing so four years in a row - surely it's only Cavendish and Merckx who've done that. If anything, downplaying the expectations in the TdF may help Cav - after all, why are the other teams going to bother chasing down breakaways if they just think Cav will win every time there's a sprint finish?

  • Comment number 16.

    #7, #8, #10, #11 - thank you all, very clear explanation, with some interesting slight disagreements. It has been said to me before that Wiggins's tactic has to be to win the time trials by as much as possible to account for the fact that he'll never match the Schleck's on the mountain - but I can see how not losing too much time on the mountain would be difficult if your team is knackered from winning sprints!

    Thanks again.

  • Comment number 17.

    I've only really taken to cycling in the last 5 or 6 years (my wife's influence!), so am far from an expert... however, people have mentioned the domestiques and having to split these between a GC and GJ contender - but from memory, Cav has taken at least 2 stages in the last few years without much of a leadout train, by tagging onto other teams and riders... could he not be left to do this (with a couple of domestiques for protection) and the rest of the team be helping Bradley?

    Hope this makes sense!

  • Comment number 18.

    My initial worry about Cav joining Sky was with the issue with Wiggins and who would be needed to support Wiggs and would he be willing to help out in the train. But after the worlds this year, I no doubt he will do his share, even if it's not to the end of the race. I think Sky will lose two men from the train, prob someone riding in front of wiggs so that when he moves off, he can wait for wiggs to do his bit, leaving the rest for the ride home.

    But in the end, I think it will come down to Cav himself and the organisational skills of Sky. For the past couple of years, other teams could not complete with HTC organisation which I think is the key for Sky. I remember a couple of years ago, Millar's team trying to form their own train in Paris only for them to mess it up ( I think they took the 2nd to last corner wrong). But anyhow, as Cav as proven, he doesn't really need his team to lead-out as he great at latching on to other sprinters wheels and using them as his own lead-out

  • Comment number 19.

    Merckx and Cavendish are incomparable as cyclists. Although Cav may one day eclipse Merckx record of grand tour stage wins, he wont win any classics other than Milan San Remo. Mountains and time trials will never be one of Cav's strengths, ofcourse he'll never win a grand tour.
    Saying that he's on his way to becoming greatest sprinting cyclist of all time(many already consider him so) and will be fantastic if he can go on to retain his green jersey, win more Milan San Remo's and one day retain the world champions jersey on another suitable road circuit like Copenhagen.

    Its unlikely that he will win the Olympics as the Tour de france, his main focus this year will not allow enough time to recuperate. In 2010 when Cav won the green jersey in the Vuelta he jetted off to Australia for the World championships but couldnt complete the circuit due to fatigue caused from the Vuelta. If he doesnt over do it and keeps going(cyclists need to train daily even between races to keep their muscles working) he may feel it's possible to achieve both Tour green and Olympic gold but this is an incredible ask for any cyclist. No wonder Merckx never won gold for his country when he was always focused on the Tour himself.

  • Comment number 20.

    #17 It's not just the lead-out train but the chasing down of break-away riders on the stages where there's a chance of a sprint victory.

  • Comment number 21.

    @12 Last year I was aware of Kittel racking up a lot of wins, but didn't see him in action until the Tour of Poland, which really convinced me. What struck me was the ease with which he was winning. I suspect he'll become Cav's toughest opponent yet, but we'll have to see. I think his 1T4i team are a definite for the Tour. ASO has been kind to Skil-Shimano in the past and they have so much great young talent in that team. Also, if Saxo lose World Tour status over the Contador affair (probably unlikely) 1T4i will probably take their place. Another sprinter winning at a similar rate is Viviani, though he'll probably do the Giro rather than the Tour.

    @13, I'm a bit confused about whether Froome's actually doing the Tour, but it seems that if he will then it'll be to support Wiggins, and then he'll try and go on to win the Vuelta. Only now he knows he'll have to face Contador there. If he were to go for the Tour 100% then of course he deserves to be on that list, definitely.

  • Comment number 22.

    For what its worth here is my take on the two main questions that have been asked in the blog (as a cycling fan but certainly no expert!)

    Contenders for the TdF (yellow jersey):

    I think it will come down to the time trials this year so unless the Schlecks have been doing some serious work or mount some amazing attacks on the medium mountain stages you would have to rule them out of contention (they could lose 5-6 min over the 90km) as the other GC candidates should be able to cover any gains over the mountain stages. For me that will make Evans favourite, followed by Wiggins but it will be an open field with riders desperate not to lose out to any unforeseen circumstances over the first couple of weeks to make sure they are in with a shout at the end. As for the green jersey it will be close as usual and i think it will depend on form going into the event but I'm looking forward to teams taking more of an interest this year (instead of just leaving their sprinters to it) and there are 5 or 6 names in the hat already.

    As for can Sky compete on both the Yellow and Green fronts, my initial thought was no and that it could cost them on both counts however I do see Cav as someone who can still win stages without the team effort we saw HTC put in over the last few years and Wiggins will only want 3 domestiques anyway (including Mr Froome in my opinion) leaving a couple of places in the team open to strong men who can drag the field along if/when it is necessary. I think though that it could ultimately come down to how much other teams want it when it comes down to reigning in break aways as this will affect how much effort the Sky boys have to put it.

    I'd expect sky to go with a team that looks something like this (if they do intend to compete on both fronts): Wiggins, Froome, Uran, Flecha, Bosan Hagen, Cav, Eisel Stannard/Sutton/Swift, Rogers.

    But hey what do i know!

  • Comment number 23.

    # 22- I think that will be very closes to the Sky lineup for the Tour barring injury etc.

    Does anyone know if there is Live coverage for the Giro this year? and if so where?
    As the layout looks really good for Cavendish to have a good go at the points jesrsey this year.

  • Comment number 24.

    How nice to read a blog about Sport and a great sports champion.

    Cycling even with the Contador affair has become the most honest of major sports in the UK. All of a sudden, so it seems, cyclists have become household names. People who would have struggled answering "name the Tour De France winner?" question in pub quizzes of the past, are now shouting out "Which year?"

    It is a great time. It is refreshing. And this year will be as exciting as any...

    ...but, that is not because of the Olympics. Ollie is right, most cyclists do not prioritise the Olympics, and this will be no different, expect for the British guys and girls, who want to win on their home patch. It will be fantastic if/when they do.

    The reason for this year's excitement is that the Grand Tours promise to stretch even the most skillful of punter to the limit. All three could go to dozens of riders, including some of the British riders. The UK will be well represented in just about every stage of every tour and every classic. The ladies will continue to win stages, and our youth riders will demonstrate that the medium term is a good as things are now.

    I cannot wait.

  • Comment number 25.

    A couple of points about Merckx and the Olympics. Back in 1964 (and throughout his career) the Olymics were purely amateur and he only had one shot at it. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics it was raining and Merckx was away in a 4 man break not far from the finish when his group crashed on one of the last corners (if not the last one, I can't remember. I can't remember who caused the crash either but doubt it was Merckx who was a renowned bike handler). You wouldn't have bet against him winning without that crash because the same year he won the amateur world championship. These days that is the equivalent of the under-23 world championships - he was only 19 at the time. He turned professional for Peugeot in 1965 - becoming a teammate of the late, great Tommy Simpson.

  • Comment number 26.

    I think Sky can go for Green & Yellow. One of the reasons that Eisel was signed was to act at MC's bodyguard. Many a time Big Berrnie was the guy who stayed with Cav in the mountains to pace him over the top and keep him in the time limit. Freeing up the others to help Wiggins. As pointed out Berrnie is close to Cav off the bike. I think as with all top sports people the down time is just as important and the Sky set up looks right for Cav. I was not a B. Wiggins fan due to the Bejing Madison final but I have to say the turn he pulled at the Worlds was amazing and proved what a team player he is. I have always known BW is a great bike rider. Really looking forward to the season and best of luck to Sky

  • Comment number 27.

    Just had a browse at 1997 tour when Jan Ullrich and Eric Zabel won yellow and green respectively for the same team. Ullrich won by mammoth margin of 9mins 9 seconds. Eric Zabel finished ahead of his nearest rival by over 120 points too. Apparently he was a bit of a lone ranger taking 3 stages and going through the hassle of picking up points by himself.

    Okay Ullrichs just been done again for doping which would indicate that not all was how it would seem. As hes been done twice now, I think all his records and achievements should be wiped off the score board but thats another story.

    To retain the green jersey, Cav will need to pick up as many points as possible through the intermediate sprints without his regular leadout train. This year he had 2 or 3 riders helping him each time. He'll most likely take Eisel but no others as the tour goes on.

    This years tour does seem to favour Wiggins for yellow with the additional time trial much more than it has in recent years. However if he finds himself in the lead going into the Pyrenees Cav will have to sacrifice Eisel and maybe help out himself as Wiggins will need all his men.

    I have to say if Froome goes it could be very interesting as he was much quicker in time trial than Wiggins at the Vuelta. I hope not though as Britains first Tour de France winner coming from Kenya or somewhere wouldnt half be an anticlimax!

  • Comment number 28.

    #21 from comments I have seen from the sky camp, I think it was brailsford, froome will be given free reign in the Giro and will be domestique in the tour ( and maybe see what happens - look at last years Vuelta ). My guess would be that he won't do the Vuelta as well but who knows.

    Great blog this. Refreshing to see a Cycling blog. The issue of the Green/Yellow jersey and the team balance is fascinating. Maybe one for a future blog.....

  • Comment number 29.

    Not a cycling aficionado by any stretch but was captivated by the success of the team GB riders and the vibrancy and atmosphere around events in the velodrome in 2008. Hoy, Wiggins, Pendleton and co really put a stamp on the common consciousness and lifted the profile of GB cycling to a whole new level. Since then Cavendish has raised the bar again with his incredible exploits and to hear him express his pride and sense of responsibility in his role as GB cycling standard bearer is massively refreshing.

    In an age of pampered often talentless yet hideously overpaid sportsmen, Cavendish is a throwback to a time where donning an England vest was something to be proud of and was inspirational. Cycling fan or not, I for one can't wait to watch him race. Bring it on :)


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