It’s early January and a trim-looking Mark Cavendish has meandered onto the Manchester velodrome with a Great Britain teammate in tow. After a lap or two of tranquil pace-setting they file behind the Derny and begin surfing the slipstream as the pace is relentlessly increased.
It’s a far cry from the clamour of the Tour de France; the only spectators in the fluorescent-lit arena are a gaggle of journalists who have overdone it on the Christmas turkey, and a clutch of dedicated coaching staff carefully analysing the Dimension Data rider’s every pedal stroke.
Lap after lap, this is the gruel to the glamour of pro cycling but for Cavendish this is all part of the process, a path on a journey that started on the Isle of Man but will hopefully end in Olympic Gold in Rio later this year.
An hour later and Cavendish is showered, changed and in a relaxed mood when Cyclingnews meets him in one of the small offices overlooking the velodrome.
It seems odd talking about risks with a man who puts his life and limbs on the line every time he opens a sprint but 2016 is almost certainly set to be a defining season for the Manxman. Every year is important when you are an elite athlete, of course, but there is more to Cavendish’s usual cluster of ambitions than in previous years. This season he wants to wear the maillot jaune at the Tour, win stages, seal glory at the Olympics, and then rally for another shot at the Worlds in Qatar.
It is the Olympics that provide the most intrigue given the unfinished business the 30-year-old has with the Games. Rio offers the chance not just to exorcise the demons of 2008 – when he was the only member of the Great Britain track team not to win a medal – or those of 2012 – when Great Britain were soundly dispatched with in the road race – but also to help achieve what has so far remained tantalisingly out of reach.
“As a British athlete, someone that’s proud to represent my country, the Olympics,” he says before pausing, “there are only a few countries in the world where the Olympics mean everything and Great Britain is one of them.
“As a British athlete I want to win an Olympic medal. It wasn’t something that really bothered me when I was younger. I just wanted to be a cyclist and I wanted to win stages of the Tour de France but now it’s more. It means more. It’s the only real thing that I haven’t done and is within my physical realms. I have the possibility of doing it.”
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In 2008 it was the track on which Cavendish hoped to first taste Olympic glory. He had burst through the stratosphere earlier that summer with four emphatic stages wins at the Tour but he and teammate Bradley Wiggins fell short in the Madison in Beijing. In 2012 Cavendish’s hopes for an Olympic medal on British soil were dashed once more. Rio seems an eternity from those two Games and Cavendish has matured since then, but dovetailing road and track, hunting the elusive Gold while fending off sprinters on the road, is one hell of a challenge. However, it’s one that Cavendish isn’t willing to let slip through his fingers.
“The thing about road cycling is that more riders lose than win. If I’d done the track in London and finished last I still would have had a better result than the one I had in the road race. Your British public who just watches the Olympics doesn’t understand that. To them 24th, or whatever it was, is irrelevant.”
He’s not riding for them though, is he?
“No, and I’m not trying to prove anything. This is just the only thing that I’ve not done. That’s it.”
If he had won an Olympic medal in 2008 or 2012, would he be aiming for Rio?
“No. 100 per cent no,” he says. “Maybe I would have looked at the road race if it was a different course but 100 per cent no.
“Look, I don’t know [ed. if this is a bigger year]. If I give my mind to something I’ll give it 100 per cent. It’s difficult but I want to give it a chance. If there’s any point where I realise that it’s not possible then I might have to re-evaluate, but it’s doable.”
The most daunting aspect in Cavendish’s path might be that this is 2016 and no longer 2008. The sport has moved on and in the last eight years the UCI track format has been recast. The Madison is no longer on the programme and the Omnium will be on the Olympic schedule for the second Games running. It’s a format that has it’s plusses and minuses as far as Cavendish’s qualities go, but when mixed in with the demands a road rider faces and the growing specialisation needed on the track, not to mention the increased competition from other nations, one understands how much of a challenge Cavendish is facing.
His path to Olympic glory is like one long sprint carried out in slow motion over a series of months. He must slip through gaps, navigate hurdles as Great Britain do their best to lead him out before one final race to the line in Rio. In one sense Rio might be the easier obstacle. Selection, along with arriving there in peak condition and with limited distractions might be that toughest parts.
“If it was the old men’s points race with the Madison you could pretty much come off the road and back it up with a little bit of track racing. You tailor things to the different events but it was basically bike riding. Now with the Omnium and team pursuit, they’re just so specialist now. The Omnium is an endurance event with three sprint events in it.
“You can’t just go in with endurance because if you do that you’re going to do shit in the sprint events. Then if you’re not fresh to train for the sprint events you’ll not do well either because you need to rest. It’s quite a ridiculous idea in my opinion but it is how it is and I believe that I can train to be able to do that.”
Yet if there is a rider who can cope with pressure and a challenge it’s Cavendish. There isn’t a sportsperson worth their salt that hasn’t tasted their share of failure but, unquestionably, Cavendish is the sprinter who has dominated his discipline like no other. He was blooded on the track as a young rider and with the backing of trade and national teams this year the responsibility for Olympic selection and then the Games rests firmly on his shoulders. Great Britain head coach Shane Sutton, who watched Cavendish train on track earlier, has already declared that he has an excellent chance of gaining selection if he can hit the required numbers.
'Do you remember the 2011 Tour Down Under?'
There’s a pause when Cavendish is asked if combining road and track represents his biggest risk, but he answers strongly, instantly pointing to the 2011 season when he was written off by many after a poor start to the campaign. He would later go on and win five stages at the Tour de France before claiming the rainbow jersey.
“Do you remember 2011 when I went to the Tour Down Under?
“I wasn’t in great form, I crashed, and that was about the fourth time when it was ‘career over’ and people were writing that about me. In that year I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew that to hit the Tour de France in peak, and the Worlds in peak, I knew that I couldn’t hide. But when you’re swinging out the back of races and getting dropped it’s tricky. The thing is you can’t get the same out of training as you do from races. I believe that was the mistake that Marcel Kittel made this year. He was scared to go and swing out the back and be the first dropped with all the cameras on him. I’ve never been scared of that and you can only get that racing feel from racing.
“So I would go into races knowing that I was in bad form and knowing that I would swing out the back. Do you see what I mean? You can’t simulate a race. I don’t think Kittel did that last year and that’s what he was scared to do. It was a mistake. I think he’ll come back this year. Apparently, that’s the word.
“I’d come back after a year out,” he says with a smile. “When have I taken a year out though? If I could take a year out I’d come back flying. As soon as I have a day out it’s the end of my career, isn’t it?”
Cavendish believes that he is still judged on the races he loses more than the ones that he wins. After wining 26 Tour de France stages – with so many of them coming between 2008 and 2011 – that was certainly true at one point. In recent seasons other sprinters have closed the gap, races have cut down on the number of flat stages, and Cavendish’s race programmes have altered, meaning he rarely competes in two Grand Tours in a given season.
“I still get that, you know. Even when I’m about to sign a contract. I win more than Peter Sagan but he’s on two and a half times more than me, before he won the Worlds. Three times, four times more than me.”
Is it because he and his successive leadout trains made winning look so faultlessly easy?
“I still believe that I don’t win races, I lose races. Even though I lose more now than I win,” he says again with that joking smile once more.
“It’s going to be like that for the rest of my career. I’m happy with my career. I’m super happy by it but I’ve just got to answer the same questions about it. But I knew what I was doing there in Down Under but it’s hard when you do it. You just know what’s going to happen for the rest of the year. Fortunately it worked out that year.
“Then it was the same the next year with the Olympics [ed. 2012]. I knew that I had to strip a load of weight and I know that it would change the way I was on the road. I knew that I had to be at Sky to do that for the Olympics. That backfired though in the race with the tactics. If I was going into it again I’d run the same strategy, I’d just wish that more teams would have more ambition. We’d do exactly the same again but that’s neither here nor there. I lost all the weight and won three stages at the Tour that year.”
Cavendish at his pinnacle probably means different things to different people. To most it probably conjures up images of him unleashing that unforgettable sprint to win the world title in Copenhagen in 2011. To others it might be his relentless pursuit of stage wins, or the chasm he would create between himself and his rivals each year on the Champs Elysees. There are those that will pick his emotional win in Milan-San Remo. The list goes on and before Cavendish hangs up his wheels who would bet against him adding a few more career defining moments to his illustrious palarmes. Why not Rio?