Mark Cavendish recently guest-edited Procycling magazine. He chose a variety of feature subjects, including investigations into concussions, an interview with Marianne Vos, a celebration of Milan-San Remo and a retro feature about Chris Boardman's 1992 Olympic gold medal. He also sat down for an interview with Procycling's regular editor, Edward Pickering, to talk about what the future holds for him after a glittering career and a couple of challenging years. To subscribe to Procycling and support our journalism, go to https://www.buysubscriptions.com/print/pro-cycling-magazine-subscription.
The number 34 is looming large over Mark Cavendish's life and career from the perspective of early 2019. On May 21, he'll celebrate his 34th birthday. A decade or two ago, turning 34 might have meant retirement, but 34 is only getting towards the upper end of mid-life for cyclists these days. Alejandro Valverde, the current world champion, is 38, the current Giro d'Italia champion Chris Froome is a day older than Cavendish, and reigning Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas will be 33 when he makes his defence of the 2018 yellow jersey.
But 34 is also the single number that will define the life and career of Mark Cavendish between now, its end and far beyond. It's the number of stage wins taken by Eddy Merckx at the Tour de France, and trying to equal and beat it will be the last great challenge for Cavendish in his career.
In his favour: the knowledge that some of the best sprinters in recent history have achieved their best results in their 30s. Mario Cipollini won 16 Giro stages in his 20s but 26 in his 30s (including 12 taken after he turned 34). Alessandro Petacchi was in his 30s for 16 of his 22 Giro stage wins (with five more stripped after his salbutamol case). Robbie McEwen won three Grand Tour stages in his 20s and 21 in his 30s, including four Tour stages after 34. As André Greipel has recently proved, sprinters winning Grand Tour stages in their 30s is not at all unusual.
Furthermore, Cavendish's ambitions won't be diluted by other targets. He has a rainbow jersey and a Milan-San Remo in his palmarès. More would have been nice, and he didn't sleep properly for weeks after getting beaten to the line by Peter Sagan in the 2016 Qatar World Championship, but his season won't be built around these races anymore. Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours, which used to look like sure-fire wins for Cavendish, are no longer races for sprinters.
Against him: the Tour stage win counter has been stuck on 30 for a couple of seasons, during which illness and injury have ruined his chances. The trend doesn't look good. Cavendish knows this. He's not blind. But nor has his ambition dulled with the disappointment of the last two years.
"I've won two races in the last two years," he says. "I can't say I'm the top sprinter for results at the minute. My fault or not, I don't have the results."
So far, so realistic. But then this: "I believe I'm the fastest. I truly believe that. I know that every sprinter says that, but I believe I'm the fastest," he says.
It's at this point that Cavendish's detractors usually roll their eyes and think, 'Same old Cav.' The Manx rider's unfiltered directness and unwillingness to ever compromise on saying what he thinks is congenital, and he'll never change. But there's more to this last statement than this. We'd talked about the way Cavendish is perceived, against his self-perception, and there was more nuance to his delivery than immediately comes across.
"Written down on paper, it looks arrogant. But if you hear the tone of what I'm saying, it's a lot different. People don't get tone," he had said. And it's true – when he said, "I'm the fastest," he'd laughed, because he understands the absurdity of claiming to be the fastest sprinter in the world when he's won a single race a year for two years.
Coming back from mononucleosis
Coming into 2019, Cavendish actually takes solace from the dearth of wins. During the photo shoot, he'd pointed out that 2017 and 2018 are anomalous, rather than part of a trend.
"You don't go from winning 16 races a year to one," he says. "If I'd gone from 16 to 10, you could say, 'He's getting slower.' But one win – that means something is wrong."
That something was an attack of Epstein-Barr – more commonly known as mononucleosis or glandular fever. It hit him in early 2017 and was still around in 2018, essentially ruining both years.
The 2017 attack came on the back of a stellar 2016, which was within a yard or two of being one of the all-time great cycling seasons by any single rider. He'd set an unprecedentedly broad set of targets: World Championships on the track and road, wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour and an Olympic gold on the track. He was close: with Bradley Wiggins he won the Madison at the Track Worlds and he took four stage wins, along with a stint in the yellow jersey at the Tour. That last exploit was historic – he's one of only 22 riders ever to have worn all three Grand Tour leaders' jerseys and he's one of a trio of riders to have done that and to also have won the points classifications in France, Italy and Spain (Eddy Merckx and Laurent Jalabert are the other two).
He took second in his other two targets: he was runner-up to Elia Viviani in the Olympic Games omnium, and to Peter Sagan at the Road Worlds in Qatar. He then rode Six Days through the winter, and by the Abu Dhabi Tour at the start of 2017, he was sick, although he still won a stage there.
He was physically off form in Tirreno-Adriatico, then was dropped on the Cipressa in Milan-San Remo. By then he knew something was up, so he had a blood test which confirmed that he had Epstein-Barr. He was back in time for the Tour, but was involved in a crash with Sagan early in the race and broke his shoulder, then never really got going again by the end of the season.
"I've been p*ssing in the wind the last two years," he says. "The thing with Epstein-Barr is that the worst thing you can do is exercise. The only thing to do is rest. But I've just been f*cking smashing myself and driving myself. It looks now like I don't have acute Epstein-Barr anymore, but other symptoms take a while to go; it has to be managed and that's the hardest thing.
"I had it when I was a kid, and it's not uncommon for it to creep up on endurance athletes, when you are pushing yourself to the limit. It's a coward, Epstein-Barr: it only hits you when you're weak, never when you're strong," he continues.
"Before 2016, Rolf Aldag [Dimension Data's head of performance] said to me, 'Doing all that is going to f*ck you.' I said, 'F*ck it. Worlds on the road and track.' Nobody has done that in the same year. Not even Eddy [Merckx] did that. Not many people understand how different road and track cycling are. Two-and-a-half weeks before the Olympics, I was riding up Mont Ventoux. I'm fortunate – I can change, but it takes its toll on the body. I was doing double sessions on the track – the other guys were recovering between sessions, but I was going out on the bike easy for three hours in between. Then I'd get back and we'd go straight into the efforts.
"When I first got it, my wife said to me, 'If somebody said you'd do what you did in 2016 but get sick and lose a whole season, would you have done it?' I was, like, 'You know what? I probably would.'"
Cavendish pauses, then adds: "Lose two seasons and perhaps my legacy? Probably not."
Targeting the Tour
My perception watching the 2018 Tour was that something had changed with Cavendish. Not just the sprinting – although it was clear he was nowhere near the level of Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen and the other sprinters. In his daily post-stage interviews with ITV, he was for the most part completely equanimous in defeat. It went beyond being subdued – it looked like the fire had gone out.
Cavendish was the best sprinter in the world between 2008 and 2012, and was again in 2016. It's very plausible to argue that he's the greatest sprinter ever. He was better than the others for a variety of reasons: his basic speed, sustainability of that speed, aerodynamics, tactics and teamwork were all at or near the very top in the world. But more than anything else, his primary weapons are his intensity and competitive drive. These were what really elevated him in the past. Without them, I thought, you get the Cavendish of the 2018 Tour – up there, but unable to match the very final accelerations of younger, fresher legs.
"Nah," says Cavendish when I tell him this. "I knew something was wrong. It wasn't like I f*cked up. My interview was a bit more spiky after one of the stages – Groenewegen's first win – where I clipped pedals with Kristoff and I kind of f*cked up. But there was nothing I could do."
I also suggest that the Cavendish of 2008 or 2009 would have been spitting fire and throwing helmets at defeats like these, but he disagrees there as well. "That's because back then, unless I f*cked up, I would never lose. I only lost then by f*cking up. It was never because I was not good enough."
Cavendish has a very plausible argument. His win rate at the Tour between 2013 and 2018 is not quite what it was between 2008 and 2012, but there are good reasons for that. He averaged over four a year for the first half of his career and when he left Team Sky at the end of 2012 at the age of 27, he had 23 stage wins. At that point, 34 looked like a formality. But things got harder after that.
In 2013 he was down to two stage wins, having come up against Marcel Kittel in his best form, and the following year Kittel was equally dominant, but Cavendish barely got a chance to challenge, crashing out on stage 1 in Harrogate. 2015 was disappointing – he won one stage while Greipel picked up four. The following year was the last time he hit a Tour in good health, and he won four. Zero at the last two races is the most worrying number, but Cavendish thinks he can win more. And if he can win one more, then he can win two…
"It's all I've got left," he says. "I had other goals but the races have changed. Gent-Wevelgem is not the same race that Cipollini won. It's not even slightly different; it's a different race.
"I don't have a number of Tour stages that I want to win. If I'm only good enough to win one more, so be it. If I can win five a year for the next five years, I'll try for that. I'll see what happens, but my whole season will be based around the Tour without a doubt."
Cavendish's rivals in his ambition for more Tour stage wins are obvious. Viviani was the most successful sprinter in 2018, although Cavendish points out that he beat the Italian in a stage of the Dubai Tour at the start of the year. There's Gaviria and Groenewegen, who were the best at the Tour in 2018. Kittel, if he is good, will be a threat (although he's not been good for over a year now). It's a strong cast, and the task is made challenging by the Tour's organisers ASO putting a small squeeze on the number of pure sprint stages in the last couple of years, along with the sprints themselves seemingly getting harder-fought and more complex every year.
Sprinting has changed a lot in the last 10 years alone – a development first spearheaded by Cavendish, and then by his rivals as the lead-outs got more crowded. According to Cavendish, sprinters can't afford to be halfway back in the bunch for up to an hour before the actual sprint. The sprinters have to work hard to maintain position, then to follow their lead-outs in the last 10 kilometres, and by the time the sprint is launched, riders are already in the red zone. This alone means that being able to put out high watts is only a small part of a very complex equation.
Making it look easy
There were a few years where Cavendish used to make it look easy from the outside. His lead-out – especially at HTC-Highroad – functioned like a well-oiled machine, putting him near the front, and he was so fast he could put lengths into his rivals. But when something looks easy, the truth is often more complicated.
"It's never f*cking easy. Just because it looks easy, doesn't mean it is. That's the problem I had. Because it looked easy, it was assumed to be easy, but it wasn't. People didn't see the training beforehand, when I was vomiting on climbs. And people have no idea the amount of muscle damage you do as a sprinter. When you're putting out that amount of power in the red zone, you can't get out of bed the next day. The climbers' muscles, long fibres, will never experience that muscle damage. But then again, I'll never be able to do the damage to myself that Chris Hoy would in a kilo."
For the moment, Cavendish is managing the recovery from the Epstein-Barr and setting his sights on the 2019 Tour. There are seven real sprinters' chances. The most interesting thing is that four of those come in the first week. We might have a good idea by the time the Tour hits the real mountains of whether Merckx's record is safe or whether Cavendish can do the unthinkable and equal it. And if his form and health are good, there'll be no lack of competitive drive pushing him towards immortality. "I'm addicted to winning. I need that," he says. "It's everything. I don't want to be just the best I can be, but the best of everyone."
Even including Eddy Merckx.
This interview first appeared in Procycling January 2019, which was guest-edited by Cavendish. The new edition of Procycling, which is out now, features an exclusive interview with Vincenzo Nibali and a free 68-page season preview. To support our journalism, and subscribe to the magazine, click here: https://www.buysubscriptions.com/print/pro-cycling-magazine-subscription