Off a long straight road in the province of Alicante, Mark Cavendish sits in a dusty valley, smiling with his teammates during a break from the day’s training among the jagged hills and orange trees of the east of Spain.
It’s unusually hot and windy for January, but Cavendish’s evident good humor outweighs the continual gusts – as well as the Flemish aftershocks from his fellow travelers. There is joy on his face – no trace of the horror of November’s burglary at his home in Essex, or the broken ribs and a collapsed lung suffered in a serious crash while racing on track the same month.
He’s small in stature next to several of the giants who help him in his work for the bubbling Belgian team Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, and he sits on the edge of the crowd, but he’s the patriarch. You can just smell it – born from his success as cycling’s greatest sprinter.
Last July, Cavendish triumphed four times in the Tour de France to come close to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. At 36, it was one of the great comebacks of sport.
Cavendish had not won a Tour stage for five years. He had suffered setback after setback, season after season. Injury, illness and depression combined as he contemplated retirement at the end of 2020. It was an emotional comeback and one that resonated strongly with cycling fans.
“It was the first time that…as a sportsman you’re often disconnected from a human point. It was the most connected I’ve felt in my entire career, with the fans,” Cavendish said. “They don’t watch you do something – they live it with you.
“All I can say is that the greatest joy I had in 2021 was people saying ‘thank you’. I had never really heard that before – I would get a ‘thumbs up’ or “congratulations”. But I had “thank you for the joy and the hope that you give us.” It’s touching, you know.
“I’ve had tough years, but a lot of people have had worse years. Hopefully I can give hope that…if you push hard enough, anyone can come back and stand on the highest walk or whatever.”
Patrick Lefevere, his team’s manager, said what happened last summer was “a miracle”. But he also knew how determined the Briton had been in his training throughout the year. Cavendish, who turns 37 in May, has to be the hardest working man in cycling. Often he will make sure everyone else works just as hard. He can be fiery when frustrated.
“When he gets off the team bus, you never know if he’s going to come back in five minutes like a wild bull because something’s wrong with the bike,” smiles Tom Steels – himself a former sprinter and manager sportsman of the team during the last tour of the year.
“But you can always talk to him and once it’s settled, it’s over. It’s never personal, but you never know how he may react.”
Later, after the day’s practice is over, Cavendish is surrounded by reporters, athletes and coaches in a large hall that echoes with chatter. He is unhappy and everyone knows it. He was asked if he will go to the Tour de France this year. Again. This is another source of frustration.
For some, it might seem like a shoo-in for what could possibly be one last chance to set a new record with a 35th win. But it is not that simple. Last year he was only included after teammate Sam Bennett was injured and has since died. And once again the competition will be fierce.
Getting another shot won’t be easy. But it was never easy for Cavendish. That’s what made him who he is.
Sprinters could be described as the rock stars of cycling – the most gladiating and combative riders. Cavendish could be Liam and Noel Gallagher rolled into one; an acerbic, unapproachable hero with brooding wisdom and a quick wit that will surprise you. His uncompromising attitude has always stood out.
“Mark is Mark and he won’t hold back his emotions. If he’s angry, he’ll say so,” says Lefevere, who himself is known for frustrating a few reporters.
“I think he has a lot of emotions, and emotions drive him – but that shouldn’t hide his immense talent. Don’t forget that.”
Cavendish’s talent first showed up on a BMX, growing up on the Isle of Man. Located in the Irish Sea between the North West of England and Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man is where every year they race the world’s fastest motorcycles at 200mph between dry stone walls. “It’s in the blood,” Cavendish says.
There’s a photo of a 14-year-old Cavendish in the 1999 Tour de France with one of his idols, David Millar, now retired. Two years later, the youngster had left school to work in a bank, with the aim of earning enough money to become a professional cyclist in Europe.
That’s exactly what he did. In an extraordinary era of the purest of pure sprinters, Cavendish earned the Manx Missile moniker as he began to show his full potential among a peer group of the hardest hitting and most physically aggressive riders, such as German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel.
They tossed and twitched on the tarmac, playing the right line to launch towards the finish in a furious release of energy, a brutal miracle of fight and flight at speeds approaching 80 km/h.
And Cavendish has picked up more Tour stage wins than them all – winning 30 times between 2008 and 2016 for HTC Highroad, Team Sky, Etixx-Quick Step and Dimension Data.
Unlike 100m sprinters in track and field – who know their lane is theirs – cycling sprinters know that every battle could end in a horrific crash, just as it did for Cavendish in the 2017 Tour when Peter Sagan’s elbow was used as a blocking tool. Sagan was disqualified and Cavendish was forced to retire with a broken shoulder, after being forced into metal barriers.
The bone has healed. But looking back, that moment seemed to signal a change in his competitive spirit. What followed was a journey into the depths of despair.
Cavendish returned for the 2018 Tour but missed the time cut on stage 11 and was eliminated. An explanation of why came a month later when he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever. It had drained him of the energy needed for competition and elite training.
A period of “total rest” followed, but when an unusually moderate Cavendish returned he suffered some bizarre accidents. First there was a huge somersault when slamming into a traffic island during the grueling Milan-San Remo. Then he collapsed behind the steward’s car before the Tour of Abu Dhabi had even officially started.
A change of squads from Dimension Data to Bahrain-McLaren in 2020 didn’t help, and at the end of a Covid-affected season he said in tears at the Ghent-Wevelgem Classic in Belgium that he had competed “perhaps the last race of my career”.
Then there would have been no shame in retiring. Cavendish was already the second stage winner in the history of the Tour, winner of the green jersey and world champion on the road in 2011, Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion on the track.
But he didn’t back down. And his old boss Lefevere was watching.
“The situation over a year ago, he looked desperate on TV,” the Belgian explains.
“I saw it and thought, ‘No, that can’t be true.’ I called and he came to my office and we found a last minute deal; everything went like a train.”
It’s fair to say that only a few watched for the first real signs that he was back to his best.
In a miserably overcast Tour of Turkey in April 2021 – which hardly any riders wanted to attend due to rising coronavirus cases everywhere – Cavendish won four of eight stages. The joy and relief were clear, even as he faced opponents considered second-rate on the World Tour.
“He was there and he won his first stage and we had a Facetime call and he started crying,” Lefevere recalled.
“It was the best moment. I hung up and said ‘Now we are going to drink Dom Pérignon’, because then I understood [he was back].”
Two months later came another big twist.
“Bennett has always been the sprinter for us,” continues Lefevere. “But his injury came in June. At short notice, we put Mark on the Tour of Belgium. He was in London and flew over in a helicopter two hours before the start, and he won a stage.
“When it was clear that Bennett couldn’t do the Tour either, I called Mark and he said, ‘Patrick, you can’t think of what I’m thinking. My suitcase has been packed for two weeks and I’m nervous as a junior.’ That’s when I understood that he would do a great Tour.
“When he won [his] first step, I think it was one of the greatest emotions I’ve seen in my team’s 20 years, along with everyone. And then the miracle happened; one stage became four, then the green jersey.”
Cavendish’s comeback has been particularly notable for an endurance sport, where fitness and physical performance figures rarely show an upward trend as age increases.
Victories, tears and tantrums – the Tour de France 2021 has seen it all from Cavendish. And fans want to start all over again.
But even during the build-up to last year’s final stage in Paris, where he missed out on a 35th victory by finishing third, he never seemed overly concerned about the record when asked about it. It was just the pure joy of competition that drove him.
He’s too modest to try to decipher why he’s so popular with both young boys who want to emulate him – “he was my idol growing up, and now he teases me like he does everyone in the world. team, he’s great to have around,” says Ethan Vernon, 21-year-old fellow British sprinter and housemate – and with an older generation of female fans who have seen Beryl Burton rides in their fifties, all of which revolve around an athlete with the most admirable qualities: the spirit.
It is not yet known if we will see him at this year’s Tour. Regardless of your status in your chosen field, everyone has a boss.
“I’m not Mrs Sun, I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Lefevere. “Last year, nobody knew Mark would join the team, let alone take part in the Tour or win four stages.
“In my opinion, the best riders always go to the best competition.”
Steels adds: “He’s a leader, with his British humour. He builds the team around him – but he does it in a natural way, he doesn’t force anything. Yeah, sometimes it’s fireworks, but only 10 minutes of fireworks and it quiets down again Well, let’s say 10-20 minutes…and then it’s there.
“I think he gets a lot of power out of battle. For me, he’s the best sprinter there’s ever been in cycling.”