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.
“No, and I’m not trying to prove anything. This is just the only thing that I’ve not done. That’s it.”
“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.”
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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.