Were we to liken Mark Cavendish’s 2021 to a Hollywood movie we’d probably choose Rocky’s eventual belt-grabbing victory in Rocky 2, or Daniel-san’s crane kicking triumph in Karate Kid, or perhaps Cole Trickle slingshotting up the inside to win the Dayton 500 in Days of Thunder. But it’s a very different style of movie that comes up when we speak to the Manxman about the aftermath of his barnstorming return to the Tour de France in which he won four stages.
“It was like a come down. The emotion was so high for three weeks it was a massive crash actually, to just not be there anymore. Then you have to try and readjust to get back to normal.”
Did he need to sleep for a week? “No, I had got four of the kids with me. I was up the next morning with the kids following them around Paris. The three days following the Tour de France were more tiring than the three weeks before it,” he jokes. “But I loved it. The carnage is great, I’m from quite a small family. It’s great having the chaos, it’s like the opening scenes of Home Alone each morning.”
As he says this the smile on his face is broad and warm. That’s not something fans or the press have seen much of in recent years. If you’re reading this you likely know the story by now but it’s worth swiftly recapping.
The sprinter spent two years grappling with the Epstein Barr virus and at least another year with depression. As a result between February 2017 and April this year he won only a single race, a stage of the Dubai Tour in 2018. “A few people said maybe I should stop,” he says. “It wasn’t in the spiteful way the media would, it was a ‘why are you doing it if its not making you happy.’”
In October last year he was in tears at the end of Ghent-Wevelgem at the realisation that the race could be the last of his career. By that point he didn’t have a contract to stay at Bahrain Victorious and no other offers but watching those pictures you’re left in no doubt that Cavendish was a man who wanted nothing more than to keep racing.
He sat down with Deceuninck - Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, whom he’d maintained a good relationship with ever since he’d left the squad in 2016. In his new book, Tour de Force, he recounts how Lefevere just wanted to look him in the eye to know if he was serious. He was convinced and signed Cavendish for the UCI minimum wage of around €40,000. It was the first step on what would prove a remarkable revival of fortunes.
The next was at the team’s first camp when Cavendish met Greek coach Vasilis Anastopoulos, an ex-pro who raced track against a young Mark Cavendish at one point, he would prove key to restarting the 'Manx Missile'. "When you first meet Vasi he is quite loud, quite assertive over what he wants and what he thinks, but if you take a second to listen to what he’s saying those hairs stop going off on your back," says Cavendish. "He asked me to come to his room and we met and he just laid himself and his plans out and it put me at ease he knew what he was talking about."
Anastopoulos would become the latest in a series of people who’ve had a big influence on the Manxman’s career such as Rod Ellingworth in his British Cycling academy days, or Brian Holm at HTC-Highroad. What links them we ask? “I think it's people that were not afraid to say no, will say what I'm doing wrong. As I’ve gotten older I can see that a lot more, I can recognise it,” he says.
After just a few months working together he was confident it was working. “I knew I could win races before the season started if I'm honest. Ok you can never guarantee it but if I'd gone in a casino to bet on it I'd have put it on that I would win.”
Cavendish spent the spring racing a selection of smaller classics in Belgium and Italy, picking up a few podium spots along the way. He would end up only riding one WorldTour race all season - the Tour de France.
5, Jason Kenny
4, Matt Walls
3, Tom Pidcock
2, Ethan Hayter
We've got a full interview with Mark Cavendish in this weeks' Cycling Weekly magazine, in stores from Thursday, December 9. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week.
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