Interviewing Mark Cavendish is never easy after he has lost a race. He is as competitive and aggressive when he sits in a hotel lobby as he is trying to come back up to the front and make the most of another hectic sprint in the Dubai Tour.
Even the suggestion that he somehow ‘lost’ Thursday’s second stage rankles him. In truth, he was unable to produce his best sprint on the edge of the Jumeirah Palm because of a dangerous move by a rider inside the final kilometre and then he was pushed off Andrea Guardini’s wheel by CCC Sprandi rider Grzegorz Stepniak. He gave the Polish rider a head-butt in frustration but could only finish 10th on the stage.
Cavendish turned 30 last May. He has been racing and winning for a decade. Some people have dismissed his chances of returning to his dominant best, when he was the best sprinter in the world and racked up the most stage wins at the Tour de France. But up close, you can sense that he still has a desire to win bike races. He is also still driven to prove that people are often wrong when they judge him, and has set himself the goal of pulling on the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, to go for gold on the track at the Rio Olympics and then win a second world road race title in Qatar in October.
Even Bradley Wiggins suggested that he has put a lot on his plate but admits that perhaps only Cavendish can have a successful season on the track and the road, all while riding for a new team, after two seasons hit by shoulder injuries, transfer talk and a stream of criticism.
“I think I can balance everything. I don’t want to go to any event and say I f*cked up. I know my body and know what I can do, that I can make the right decision,” Cavendish says in an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews.
“I know I’ve set myself some big goals. I’d like to win all three but realistically it’s probably not likely. But I’ll be content if I give it my best in all of them and see what happens.”
Cavendish is walking a tightrope between the track and the road in 2016, mixing training for one discipline with the other. Few riders are willing to take similar risks when contracts and sponsorship in professional cycling depend so much on success.
“The Dubai Tour is pretty close to the track worlds but I needed to test my endurance to see were my road form is,” Cavendish explains.
“This year I know that if my road racing is damaging my track racing, then I’ve got to balance something better. If the track damages my road racing, then I’ve got do something about it. But if I do everything right, every time I wake up in the morning, I think I’ll be able to do it. I believe it will be hard and it might not come off but I’m going to try.”
February will be very different to July
Cavendish bristles when Marcel Kittel’s name is mentioned just as he does when he is compared to any of his sprint rivals. The two have a decent, respectful relationship but Cavendish was beaten by the German on the opening stage of Dubai and defeats are like open wounds for every sprinter. Cavendish came from behind and fought through others to get on Kittel’s wheel but could not get past him. If it had been a straight sprint, the result could have been different. And Cavendish took heart from that.
“He’s had virtually a year off and all winter to prepare for this season, so it’s normal he’s good,” Cavendish says, seemingly unperturbed about using Kittel to make his point.
“I had nine weeks off after my shoulder injury at the Tour of Britain, then trained for eight weeks on the velodrome, doing weights and team pursuit drills. I’m quite realistic about where I’m at now. February will be very different to July, with the form I’m in now and the work I’ll have done by then.”
Some of Cavendish’s inner anger has been fuelled by the complex qualification process for the Rio Olympics. Each rider has to score points in national races, the World Cup events and the World Track Championships. Cavendish’s previous results on the track or on the road do not get him an automatic ticket to Rio.
He has qualified by racing on the track in the winter and by finishing fourth in the Omnium at the January track World Cup in Hong Kong but questions about the system sparks a flurry of expletives. Despite having the points, he will also have to produce the times on the track and convince the Great Britain selectors that he deserves to be the fifth rider in the team pursuit squad that is targeting another gold medal and be the best option for the multi-disciplined Omnium event.
The odds are stacked against Cavendish but he is ready to try.
“I really want to try to win a medal because that little box hasn’t been ticked yet,” he says. “I know it won’t change the profile of my career, it's not going to make me anymore money and I’ve already got a contract with my team. It’s just that as a British sportsperson, I’m proud to represent my country and pull on the Great Britain jersey. Rio is the biggest way to do that. That’s what it comes down to.
“There’s something wrong with the qualification process but at least I’ve managed to secure a place,” he points out. “Now I can ride the world championships and Olympics if I’m selected. Now it’s not down to me, it’s down to the Great Britain selectors. I can only get to August and try to prove that I deserve to be part of the team pursuit and omnium.”
Success with Dimension Data
Cavendish is equally determined to perform on the road with Dimension Data in 2015. His arrival helped secure WorldTour status for the African-based set-up. His presence also helped secure several key sponsors and his sprinting ability has changed the goals and the focus of the team.
“The Tour de France, Rio on the track and the Worlds in Qatar are the three headline grabbers but I want to win other things too. I want to win this with the team and be part of a team with other people winning. We’ve got some great riders and I truly believe we can be a dominant force in the next few years,” he says, firmly on message.
“We’ve got s great group of guys. There isn’t the pressure to be dominant in every race and that’s good. We were disappointed not to win the first stage when I was up there with Kittel but after looking at our performance we were still happy. Dimension Data also had this incredible side to it and an incredible story. Doug rider has brought it literally from a club team to riding Tour de France stages.”
“We’re one of the most respected teams in the peloton and we’re also riding for a cause. It’s not just a sponsor’s name on the jersey. The Qhubeka charity is engrained in what the team is about. We’re developing African talent and also helping to provide people with bikes so they can get to school or better serve their community. That’s refreshing. There’s nothing wrong the commercial structure of the sport but it’s nice to have something extra.”
Responding to criticism
Cavendish claims he rarely reads the cycling media to avoid any criticism but his anger is palpable after Thursday’s stage at the Dubai Tour. Some media and fans on social media have picked up on his head-butt but failed to notice how Stepniak pushed Cavendish off Andrea Guardini’s wheel and moved across the road.
The shotgun judgments still fire him up.
“Things I do create headlines. It’s like the whole Tom Veelers thing,” he says, referring to the crash in the 2013 Tour de France, when he and Kittel’s then leadout man made contact in the final metres of the sprint. Veelers accused him of deliberately riding into him. Cavendish was cleared of any wrongdoing but hates how the events were used to soil his reputation.
“He knows he was in the wrong there. But there are always going to be people who say jump on a bandwagon and have a go. He knew he was in the wrong but people started asking him questions because it’s a story about me. So he dined out on that for a couple of months. But it was actually pretty damaging to me. He knows that to this day he was in the wrong.”
Despite his apparent anger, Cavendish is aware that he is often targeted because of his own abrasive and often blunt character.
“I know I’m still paying for my attitude as a young rider. I’m 30 years old now; I’m not 21, when all of a sudden I had all this pressure on me. People perhaps don’t understand what that can do to you,” he argues.
Then mid-flow, his pride - the trait that seems to drive him so much, kicks back in, as if he was making a final sprint to the line.
“But to be honest, if somebody I don’t know, who has never met or spoken to me, comments about what I’m like, is it worth giving a shit what that person thinks? I don’t think so….”