The tension in the car was unbearable. Rod Ellingworth and Brian Holm, two of the biggest influences on Mark Cavendish, were in a Great Britain team car behind the race. The organisers stopped the team cars about two kilometres from the finish line and both men, and the Team Sky and Great Britain mechanic Diego Costa, had their eyes fixed on the television screen on the dashboard. Everything had gone so perfectly to plan. Now it was up to Cavendish to finish off the job.
“We were screaming flat-out at the telly,” says Ellingworth, who is usually so calm and in control. “It was absolutely incredible. I’d spent so much time thinking about it and I had to stop myself wondering what it’d be like if he won because there are so many things that can go wrong.”
When the little figure in the red, white and blue skinsuit crossed the line and put his arms up, Ellingworth, who has coached Cavendish since he joined the British Cycling Academy in late-2003, and Holm, who has managed him at his professional team since 2007, began celebrating.
Britain’s 46-year wait for a men’s road race world champion was over. And they made it look simple.
“Everything worked in our favour but I believe you make your own luck,” says Ellingworth. “If it had been a horrible, wet, windy day, we wouldn’t have been able to race the way we did but we had a plan for that too.”
All eight Great Britain riders were committed to sacrificing everything for Cavendish. “We had a meeting on the bus the night before the race and it was either Dave [Millar] or Brad [Wiggins] who said that even if Mark crashed with two kilometres to go, they would all wait and try to take him back up. There wasn’t any talk of trying to get G up there or send Brad. It really was all for one man.”
In a 266-kilometre race anything can happen, but Great Britain were cool under fire.
“Every time they hit that little climb about three kilometres after the start/finish area, Cav and Jeremy [Hunt] just put it in a small gear and floated up and then it was Jeremy’s job to take him back up to the front again. They did that for the first eight or nine laps. They were dropping back to about where Hushovd was when the crash happened, but they decided not to do it a couple of laps before the crash and that was a bit of luck.”
Ellingworth accepts that the course made it possible for Great Britain to execute their plan. “We did three laps of it on the Thursday. I was on the motorbike with them and they were travelling at 40 kilometres an hour. Brad said that if we were racing at 46 or 47 all the time, you’d have to be doing 49kph to get away and stay away.
“But you still have to do it. The Belgians tried to scare us by putting Jurgen Van Summeren up the road but no one panicked.
“All you are wondering is whether they will have the legs to see it through. In the end, we had men to spare. If you look at it, really only Chris Froome, Steve Cummings and Jeremy Hunt worked until the last hour. We still had G, Ian Stannard, Dave Millar.
“Bradley’s turn was unbelievable. It meant no one could attack and that’s exactly what we wanted. At one point Mark sensed Brad was slowing down and was getting ready to react but Brad actually upped the pace. Even when the Aussies and Italians tried to get something going, we were still in control.”
The initial plan to get Cavendish into the final corner in third place was changed in the weeks leading up to the race. Cavendish said he wanted to get round the corner in about eighth or 10th and come from a deeper position rather than take it on too early.
“If he didn’t have any team-mates left for the last kilometre, so be it,” says Ellingworth. “The job was to get him to that corner in eighth or 10th.
“We prepared him for a scrap. Sometimes in the Grand Tours, he gets uptight if a non-sprinter gets in the way, so we worked on that. I said this is the World Championships, everyone in that group is going to have a go and they have every right to have a go. So if a rider bumps you, don’t have a go, it’s just wasted energy.”
Championship preparation looked to have been jeopardised when he pulled out of the Vuelta a España early in the first week because of illness. Perceived wisdom is that you need the Vuelta in your legs to win the rainbow jersey.
“There was talk that Mark wasn’t really ill but I couldn’t believe people would think that,” says Ellingworth. “He’s not the sort to say he feels ill if he’s not. He’d had a bad night and felt the heat might make it worse. He did go into the Vuelta deliberately slightly off his form but that was the whole idea. The plan was to chip away and use the Vuelta to get fit.
“After he quit the Vuelta, I was in touch with him most days and made sure I knew what he was doing. He trained well and we knew he was in good shape. Maybe not 100 per cent but pretty close to it.”
This article originally appeared in the October 6 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine