Life Advice

How to win with Mark Cavendish

Climbing to cycling’s peak has made Mark Cavendish vomit (lots), left him bruised and broken (also lots), and still takes him away from his family for 300 days a year. Is that what it takes to get to the top?

Mark Cavendish has been in the wars. Between late February and the middle of March this year, he crashed out of three races, sustaining a mixture of cuts, bruises, concussion, whiplash and broken ribs. Most recently, he collided with an obscured bollard with such force that his bright orange cycling shoe was ripped from his foot, while his body was sent into a flying somersault over his handlebars and onto a patch of Italian tarmac.

Now, though, he’s back to something like full fitness. ‘I’m good, thank you,’ he says, very politely, when we meet during a pause in The Jackal’s shoot in the gardens of RHS Wisley. He’s just returned to the UK from a stint in Tuscany, where he lives and trains for most of the year, but is gearing up for the business end of this season.

It could be a momentous one. Cavendish has already won almost everything on offer in cycling: multiple world championships on the track and one on the road, a Commonwealth gold medal, an Olympic silver, and the points classifications in all three of cycling’s ‘grand tours’ – along with an MBE and a BBC Sports Personality of the Year for good measure. But as the procession of victories has continued, another garland has come within his grasp. He currently sits on 30 stage wins in cycling’s premier competition, the Tour de France (sprinters like Cavendish target single stages rather than the overall ‘general classification’ title, which attracts riders such as Chris Froome). He’s now just four behind the record set by one of cycling’s all-time greats, Eddy Merckx. To surpass the Belgian, or even equal him, would lift ‘Cav’ from being regarded as one of the outstanding talents of his generation to a permanent place in the pantheon of his sport. Not bad for a lad from the Isle of Man.

‘I’m addicted to winning. But I’ve never been in a “win-at-all-costs” mindset’

Although this goal might have only recently hoved into view, he’s always been obsessed with winning. ‘Since I was kid I had to win whatever I did,’ he says. ‘One of my earliest memories in life was from nursery school. I must have only been two, but I can remember organising a running race from one side of the room to the other and back. I can’t remember if I won, or how I felt, but I can remember making a competition out of it.’

Another source of motivation has often been to fight back against people who doubt him, to ‘prove them wrong’. He won a senior world championship on the track at the first time of asking, having never even been selected to take part in junior world championships. ‘I really remember fuming every time I never got selected for the worlds as a junior,’ he says. ‘I remember thinking I’d waited so long for it.’

He’s also driven by the pain of defeat. In particular, a second place at the world road championships in 2016 still rankles. He gives a detailed description of the tactics in the final part of the race and the unlikely twist of fate that stopped him from winning. ‘You don’t need to write all this,’ he says, as he explains. ‘People will just shut the magazine. But it was horrible. It was like something wasn’t meant to be.’

Cavendish says the prospect of beating individual rivals doesn’t really spur him on, but his motivation has changed over the years. ‘When I was younger I wanted to win because I wanted to be the best. For my own ego.’ Now he’s a father but, while he’s training and racing, lives separately from his wife and young children, who are based at the family home in Essex. ‘I’m away from them 300 days of the year and I have to make those days count,’ he says. ‘I can’t lie: I want to give them a good life and if I do better financially, I can give them more. But, more importantly, I want them to be proud of me. That’s my biggest drive.’

That’s what pushes him through training sessions that make him vomit and the ‘lonely, lonely times’. ‘People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes,’ he says. Other riders might train as hard as Cavendish physically, but he doubts that anyone can match him when it comes to preparation. He does logic puzzles and Sudokus to keep his mind sharp and uses Google Maps and Street View to plot his assault on the closing stages of races. Before I can finish asking whether anyone else does the same, he cuts me off. ‘No – not at all. I know most riders don’t do the kind of thinking-out beforehand that I do. I’m lucky. If everyone did it, it would make my job a lot harder.’

At a time when professional sportspeople and their minders are so focused on not saying anything controversial that they end up saying nothing at all, Cavendish’s forthright approach is, truly, a breath of fresh air. ‘I don’t want to talk bullshit and I don’t want people to talk bullshit to me,’ he says at one point during our conversation. But he admits that this attitude has occasionally landed him in trouble. ‘When I was young, I was a dickhead, you know? From the age of 18 I was a full-time bike rider. I was world champion within a year and, from that point, everybody around me told me I was always right.’

‘I couldn’t just happy with making money. I’m not happy unless I’m moving forward’

Aged 24, Cavendish was pulled out of a race by his team after directing a two-fingered gesture at critics who, he said at the time, knew ‘jack shit about cycling’. Later in the same season, the riders of several teams staged a protest in the middle of the Tour of Switzerland in response to Cavendish’s role in a crash that injured several riders. But, now 33, he says he has mellowed and surrounded himself with people – especially his wife, former model Peta Todd – who aren’t afraid to tell him when he’s ‘being a dick’.

In person, curly strands of grey hair are visible and his wiry 5ft 9 frame bears the evidence of months spent in the saddle under midday sun. He has tan lines that show where the skin on his neck creases as he bends down over his handlebars while raising his head to look at the road ahead. He has ‘lots of ideas’ about what he might do in retirement, including the possibility of starting his own team or trying another sport, but won’t commit to anything just yet – other than saying he ‘couldn’t just be happy with making money. I’m not happy unless I’m moving forward.’

There’s plenty of mileage left in his current career, if he wants it. The Tour de France record is well within his reach and even if he doesn’t claim it this year, he could easily be racking up wins into his late 30s. He’s also starting to think about preparing for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. That could be a fitting endnote, especially if he were to manage to team up with fellow Brit Geraint Thomas on the track in the Madison event and win one of the few things that has so far eluded him: an Olympic gold medal. ‘That,’ he says wistfully, ‘would be the dream.’