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Comment: Why Rod Ellingworth is Mark Cavendish’s extra man

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Mark Cavendish (Great Britain) in his rainbow jersey

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain) in his rainbow jersey (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Rod Ellingworth

Rod Ellingworth (Image credit: Rod Ellingworth)

There is one man for whom Mark Cavendish’s world road race title may hold unwelcome and unwanted consequences. That man also just happens to be the “best coach in the world” - Cavendish’s oft-repeated words, not ours.

Rod Ellingworth would wince at that homage just as he will squirm with every mention of his contribution to Cavendish’s victory. Some coaches bask in reflected glory, others shield their eyes. Ellingworth belongs very firmly in the second category.

Around a decade ago, Ellingworth met Cavendish for the first time at a British Cycling coaching weekend. He went home quietly intrigued by a kid who “didn’t stand out on the bike” but who had bounded across the Manchester velodrome car park at the end of the final session to tell him “That was the best weekend I’ve ever had on my bike. Thanks”.

A couple of years after that, Ellingworth put Cavendish through the first gruelling paces of his two-year stint at the British Cycling Academy and briefly wondered, like Cavendish, whether he would ever cut it. A few weeks into those two years, Ellingworth picked Cavendish out of a ditch at the top of Gun Hill in the Peak District and surveyed a pudgy teenager whose ambition, to paraphrase a famous movie, was writing cheques his body couldn’t cash.

Cavendish wept, Ellingworth cajoled him.

“What are you doing to improve? Are you riding your bike and sticking to a good routine? Yes. OK, you’re already doing that, so there’s no need to apologize. Just stick at it. Now get back on your bike and let’s carry on working...”

It is to Cavendish’s immense credit that, as his fame and palmarès have soared since that day, he has stuck with Ellingworth. Not out of loyalty but out of wisdom. Over the past eight years, he has met many would-be cycling gurus with far greater experience and far greater reputations. Yet no decision better highlights Cavendish’s intelligence than his choice of coach. “I’m surrounded by great people,” the new world champion has said more than once. What modesty perhaps prevents him from acknowledging is that he has surrounded himself with those people, Ellingworth foremost among them.

“Project Rainbow Jersey” – the master plan to target the rainbow jersey in Copenhagen in 2011, was Ellingworth’s idea three years ago, but his role in its execution runs much deeper. The fact that the eight-man Great Britain line-up for the race contained three of his Academy graduates (Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard) only hints at his legacy.

“The Academy….that was basically all Rod,” one well-placed judge said recently. Meaning that all of the millions British Cycling invested, all of their state-of-the-art technology, all of their talent, would have amounted to little without Ellingworth’s passion, his common sense and his commitment.

His methods can seem simple or even simplistic. Yet therein lies their brilliance. The legendary football manager Brian Clough used to stand with a stick near the penalty spot, prodding his strikers as he urged them to “Hit the target!” – and Ellingworth’s techniques are similarly devoid of frills. “Ride your bike, just ride your bike…” is one of his mantras – a scythe to some of the mumbo-jumbo which has infiltrated the cycling vernacular in recent years. 

After Edvald Boasson Hagen’s botched sprint behind compatriot Thor Hushovd on stage 16 of this year’s Tour de France, Ellingworth sat the young Norwegian in front of the TV screen and kept pausing and rewinding until the penny dropped. “Watch bike-racing, as much as possible – that’s another thing I try to get the lads to do, and which Cav has always done,” Ellingworth expounded the following morning. A few hours later, Boasson Hagen was putting into practice the previous night’s lesson and winning his second stage of the Tour in Pinerolo.

That time, too, Ellingworth shunned all praise – “It’s nothing to do with me,” he said – but it seems only a matter of time before the wider public starts noticing a common denominator in many of the Team Sky and British successes. Having never “cracked” the European pro peloton as a rider in the nineties, Ellingworth encountered and tactfully ignored considerable scepticism on becoming Team Sky’s race coach at the start of 2010. Slowly, though, the admirers have multiplied. And tributes like that of HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Brian Holm - ”Rod is unbelievably good”- are now becoming the norm.

All of which will no doubt cause Ellingworth great embarrassment. But not distraction. He wants Cavendish to “follow his dreams”, the next of which are a second Milan-San Remo, more glory at the Tour, and Olympic gold in London next August. It’s become fashionable to espouse the sprinter’s own view of himself as a kind of physiological mongrel, a force of will rather than nature, but Boasson Hagen wasn’t the only one who had an epiphany in July. “I watched Cav win on that uphill finish [to Cap Fréhel on stage 5] and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, Cav can say what he likes, but he’s flippin’ talented…’” Ellingworth noted one day at the Tour.

For everyone involved in winning in Copenhagen, the world title was the apotheosis of years of hard graft. In his post-race press conference, Cavendish wished that his seven Great Britain teammates could all have rainbow stripes on their jerseys for the next 12 months. After his part in Sunday’s masterful display, surely Ellingworth deserves to wear them, too.