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Mark Cavendish clears Epstein-Barr threshold for first time in two years

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Alejandro Valverde and Mark Cavendish greet each other ahead of the stage

Alejandro Valverde and Mark Cavendish greet each other ahead of the stage
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Mark Cavendish rides in the peloton

Mark Cavendish rides in the peloton
(Image credit: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
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Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mark Cavendish said in California on Friday that a blood test two weeks ago showed he is below the threshold for being sick with Epstein-Barr, the virus that has plagued the Dimension Data sprinter for the past two years.

Speaking at the press conference ahead of the Amgen Tour of California, which starts Sunday in Sacramento, Cavendish said his body has been responding well to training and he will be challenging for race wins once again.

Cavendish has just 26 race days in his legs so far this season after lacklustre performances at Vuelta a San Juan and the UAE Tour and then abandoning Paris-Nice. The 33-year-old returned to racing at the Tour of Turkey last month and most recently competed in the Tour de Yorkshire, where his best result was eighth on stage 1.

“Normally I would have had a lot of racing by now, but the last couple of years I haven’t done much early in the year because I’ve been sick, but now I’m finally healthy again and I feel human after a couple of years,” Cavendish said.

“I’m actually able to build on my form now. I always like to come to the Amgen Tour of California in top condition in May. I’m not quite in top condition, but I’m fortunate that especially this first stage in Sacramento; I’ve won it three times. I know the finish really well.”

Cavendish was first diagnosed with Epstein-Barr in early 2017, but he took a break from racing again last season after he was re-diagnosed with the illness. Now he believes the virus that causes mononucleosis has been beat, at least for the time being.

“My last blood test a couple of weeks ago was the first time for two years that I’ve been under the threshold for being sick, and so it’s a massive relief and hopefully I can get back to doing good things,” he said. “But I’ve been overwhelmed with the support people have given me from it and the support I’ve had from my current medical team. I’m finally getting better to be able to go and challenge for some race wins.”

It’s been a long dry spell for Cavendish, who claimed the most recent of his 146 career wins at the Abu Dhabi Tour in February of 2018. His previous win before that came at the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour, and the two wins before that came at the 2016 Abu Dhabi Tour.

Through such struggles, many riders would have considered throwing in the towel on a career already filled with accomplishments, but Cavendish kept fighting through the illness, hoping to emerge on the other side with the ability to regain his old form. Cavendish gave two reasons for his commitment.

“First and foremost, I love the sport, I love racing my bike and that’s as simple as that,” he said. “Secondly, anybody can have an opinion, but not everyone can have their own facts. I think that’s a good remark to live by. I know what I can do, and it’s as simple as that.”

Message for Kittel

As someone who has felt the vitriol of online critics, Cavendish was hit particularly hard by the news that Marcel Kittel terminated his contract with Katusha-Alpecin and will take a break from the sport. The Manxman penned a tribute to his former sprint rival in which he said Kittel raised Cavendish’s own level and enhanced the sport as a whole. Cavendish’s remarks were well-received and came at a time when Kittel needed a boost.

“We’re living in a world now where everyone has access to have their say, and that puts a different pressure onto anybody, let alone professional sports people,” Cavendish said, explaining why he felt the need to write the tribute. “It’s changed the whole dynamic of professional sports, and it’s changed the whole dynamic of life.

“Somebody said, ‘Oh, you’ve got one less competitor now,’ but I don’t really wish for one less competitor, because he’s suffering, you know. It’s as simple as that, and I just wanted to write something from the heart. It doesn’t matter if you’re friends or not; you never wish something on anybody. It was just as simple as that. I think that’s the last I’d like to say about it. I think he’s entitled to his privacy in a way, and I would like to respect that.”