An interview with Mark Cavendish, June 20, 2007
He's already taken world, European and Commonwealth Games championship medals on the track and now, in his first pro year, T-Mobile's young sprinter Mark Cavendish has developed into one of the fastest road sprinters on the circuit. What's more, on Tuesday he became one of the first riders to sign the UCI's new anti-doping charter, pledging to win clean. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes recently spoke to the Manxman about his five victories this season, the atmosphere on the German team and about his chances of starting the Tour de France on home soil.
This year has seen a dream professional debut for Mark Cavendish. The T-Mobile rider may be just 22 years of age, the season may be just five months old, but he has already landed five victories and snagged the green jersey of points winner in the Four Days of Dunkirk. That means he has netted the highest total of individual wins for the [men's] team thus far in 2007.
After finishing second on the opening stage of the Etoile de Bessèges, the Manxman lost some time due to illness. He bounced back with a sprint victory in the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen on April 18, beating riders of the calibre of Robbie McEwen (Predictor Lotto), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), and Erik Zabel (Milram).
Cavendish was 11th in the following day's Grand Prix de Denain and then lined out in the Four Days of Dunkirk on May 8. He finished third on Stage 2, winning the bunch sprint, and then galloped in first on Stages 3 and 6, netting the points jersey in the process. More was to follow: he snagged his first ProTour victory on stage two of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya on May 21, then followed that up with another win on stage six.
"I knew what I was capable of, but as a neo pro I came into the year fulfilling team roles." -Mark Cavendish was confident of his talent heading into 2007
It's been a great start, to say the least. "I knew I was capable of that but given that my season started off quite badly due to me being sick, it has worked out well," he said. "Once I got that initial victory in the Scheldeprijs I showed I could do it, and was just a case of getting more wins after that.
"I knew what I was capable of, but as a neo pro I came into the year fulfilling team roles," he continued. "The win occurred after I got my first opportunity to show what I could do, and since then the team has been working for me in some other races."
As emphasised at the T-Mobile launch in Majorca earlier this year, strong teamwork is one of the big goals for the German-registered ProTour squad this season. Cavendish underlines that theme when asked which victory he was happiest with, choosing to highlight the manner of the wins rather than the results.
"It was obviously nice to win my first ProTour race, but it is not the actual wins that made me happy," he stated. "It is the fact that the team has worked for me to get them. The calibre of the riders who have written for me in these races is something that actually means more to me than the wins themselves… it shows that they are putting their faith in me.
"I am definitely more confident than before due to the victories," he continued. "Since Scheldeprijs, I have won every bunch sprint I have gone for, apart from the one in Denain."
Delivering on potential
Despite his youth, he has shown his speed against the professionals on several occasions in the past. Back in 2005 he was third and sixth on stages of the Tour of Britain, then took the points jersey in the same race one year later with placings of second, second, third, fourth and seventh. Last season also saw him finish second, fourth and fifth on stages of the Tour de Langkawi.
In addition to those results, he was first on a stage of the under 23 Internationale Thüringen-Rundfahrt event, took two stage victories and second overall in the Tour of Berlin, fourth in the Tour de Bochum and 11th in the world under 23 championships. He had been 14th in the previous edition in Madrid.
Scheldeprijs was a big step forward, marking the first time he beat the top professionals. At the time, he admitted that breaking that duck was a strange feeling. "It was a bit scary, actually, as I didn't know whether I should have gone past McEwen," he said on the day of his win. "When I was going by him, I was wondering 'should I be doing this?' It felt a bit disrespectful, or something!
"It is great, though," he added. "Really good for the morale. It is not the fact that I beat the riders because I know I am capable of that anyway. It is more the fact that I am only about 50 percent fit because I have been sick and am still coming back from that. That is what surprised me more. "
"I got the stomach bug that was going around after Bèsseges. I was one of the first on the team to catch it. There was a knock-on effect, in trying to come back to early. I was panicking, smashing myself into the ground by pushing too hard, and ended up in bed for two and a half weeks."
When asked then what his target was for the rest of the season, he said that his goal was to confirm what he had just done. "I just want to prove that today wasn't a fluke, and start consistently winning from now on," he explained. "I hope to win consistently throughout the year to prove that I am a sprint contender in the pro peloton."
He's certainly achieved that.
The new wave
Cavendish turned 22 last month and is one of the new wave of riders in the sport. The past 10 years have seen a tumultuous time for cycling with many scandals, but it is hoped that this generation will do things in the right way and that the sport can recover.
He came through the British Cycling system which is regarded as one which promotes and pushes for clean performances. He feels that structure was of great benefit to him.
"It [British Cycling's setup] has helped a lot in my development," he said back in January. "Especially working with Rod [Ellingworth, the under 23 coach]. For me, he has been great to work with and has shown me how hard work pays off. I have trained, done everything right, and the amount that I have progressed in the last three years is quite remarkable, really.
"The ethics of T-Mobile played a massive part in me actually wanting to ride for them," he confessed. "The new structure is great for young riders, especially as there is so much focus on the anti-doping policy and the aims of getting everything right."
In addition to signing riders who subscribed to a strong anti-doping ethos - and ensuring that those who stayed on from 2006 also felt the same way - the T-Mobile team has been conducting stringent internal testing this season and has very strict financial penalties for anyone who tests positive. That system was however shaken in May when sporting director Rolf Aldag admitted to having doped during his career.
The media coverage of this admission meant that he was under pressure to resign but general manager Bob Stapleton urged him to stay on, pointing out the work Aldag had been doing, his commitment to the cause and the strong relationship he had with the riders.
Cavendish echoes this. "There is obviously going to be a mixed reaction to something like that," he stated. "But I think I speak for the majority of the guys when I say that I don't really care what happened 10 years ago. All I have seen from Rolf is the commitment he has given to pushing for a clean and fair sport. I believe him. I have complete respect for him and I don't care what he did in the past. It is what he is doing now that matters, the work he is doing for a cleaner sport.
"He is a great leader," added Cavendish. "It is the way he says things, it really gets you motivated and makes you want to do it [ride well]. Bob [Stapleton] is the same. He treats everybody with the utmost respect. It is a great feeling to be around him, and the atmosphere he brings to a team is great. I have got a lot of respect for him.
Cavendish has also been motivated by compatriot Roger Hammond, who has helped guide him during his first pro season. There is a lot of mutual respect between the pair. "I rode on the same team as him in the 2005 Tour of Britain and he was a big help to everyone back then," reflected Cavendish. "I could also see he was a help to the young riders at the race last year. He will always pass on his knowledge. Roger is one of these old school riders who knows a lot more about the bike than many people."
Riding the Tour?
Like Hammond, Cavendish has the possibility this season to line out on home soil in the Tour de France. Nothing is decided as yet but he's clearly one of the fastest bike riders around at the moment and this, plus the guaranteed UK media and spectator interest in him, will help boost his odds of selection.
"I really don't know what the chances are as yet," he said last Thursday. "I think we will just have to wait until the team is confirmed later on in the month. It is a once in a lifetime chance to start the Tour in Britain. Every single journalist has asked me if I will be taking part and I have always replied that it would be great to. But I have got my feet on the ground, not my head in the clouds, and I can imagine how tough would be. It will be a different ball game to anything I have ever done before."
Cavendish insists he will accept whatever decision is made. "As long as we send our best nine riders, then I am completely happy with that choice," he said. But if he is selected, he says it is likely he will do some rather than all of the Tour, thus avoiding pushing things too hard at such an early stage.
"I think that I'd stop during the race [rather than going to Paris]," he admitted. "Even if I wanted to, I don't know if I am ready to try and finish something like that; I think it was completely kill me! If I make the team, it makes sense for me to just do a certain amount. I have got some great people behind me in our management and I think they know what is best."
Before then, he will take part in the Ster Elektrotoer [June 19-23], then do the British national champs on July 1. Back in January he pinpointed this as a goal, saying: "It would be nice to be British champion".
Speaking in recent days, he said that this was still an ambition but stated that teammate Hammond would also have a strong chance. "Obviously it is not always about the severity of the course in Britain, it is the style of racing," he said. "When you get continental riders coming over and racing against British guys, it can be hard for those continental riders to do what they want to do.
"We have got both areas covered," added Cavendish. "I think the course is more suited to Roger. He is going well. I know he is very motivated for the nationals. I think we can go there and come away with something.
"It is obviously a case that Roger will want to the race to be as hard as possible and he will thrive on that," he continued. "But if the racing is negative, it could all come down to a bunch sprint. We have got that area covered as well!"
Although Cavendish is primarily known as a sprinter, his solid ride in the recent Philipelphia International Championship shows that he can handle a tough course. He was working for his team-mate Bernhard Eisel, who had won the first two races in the three-race Commerce Bank Triple Crown series, and was right there at the finish to lead out the Austrian. Eisel got third while Cavendish hung on for sixth.
"I was happy enough with that," he said. "It took me all week to get my legs, while Bernhard was going extremely well. Sunday was okay, the distance wasn't too much of a factor due to the fact that we have got European races in our legs. But it was a tough course with the [Manayunk] Wall and that, and the race didn't go as it normally does. It is very stop-start, with attacks in strange places, and so the racing is a bit illogical over there. I don't understand it sometimes, you can't put a tactical plan to it.
"But it was all right…we had an exceptionally strong team there and we all worked brilliantly together," he added. "I think it is just unfortunate that we couldn't win on the last day. Bernhard was on brilliant form, as we saw earlier in the week. The sprint on Sunday was different to the others, it was one which would have suited me, but as I wasn't going well earlier in the week and he had been flying, I think it was right to put everything on Bernhard."
Longer term, he has an idea of how he would like to develop. "Hopefully I will become a fast, one-day rider," said Cavendish. "I don't know about [long] stage races yet, although do have the sprint. I love one-day races, I love getting dirty, just nailing it down on small roads."
His competitive mentality also brings him satisfaction, when things work out. "I am never more happy than when I am winning, whether it is a track race or stage of a big race," he said. "As long as I am winning, I am on top of the world."