How Mark Cavendish conquered the world

Mark Cavendish has a competitive streak written through him like the lettering in a stick of rock. When he was a teenager, he got into ballroom dancing because his mother, Adele, ran a dancewear shop. Part of the attraction was that he got to meet girls, and his first serious girlfriend, Melissa, was a good friend of one of his dance partners. “People used to take the piss out of me for it but I was good at it and we won, so I kept at it.”

But there was something about racing a bike that appealed much more to him. Whether he won or lost, it was solely down to him. He didn’t have to rely on a partner and there weren’t any judges making the decision. If you crossed the line first, you were the best.

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When he was 12, he entered his first bike race, which was a few laps of a little circuit near his home on the Isle of Man. Cavendish was on his BMX, while all the other children had mountain bikes. The fact everyone else had a better bike didn’t worry him on the start line because he was focused on beating them all. He came dead last and told his mum: “I’d have won if I’d been on a proper bike.”

For his next birthday, he got a better bike, went back to the same circuit and won. By the time he was 14 he’d stopped dancing and decided he wanted to be a professional cyclist. He left school at 16 and worked in a bank, aiming to save money to fund a couple of seasons in Europe.

He won a good number of races as a junior but he didn’t get selected to represent Great Britain at the World Championships because he didn’t fit the criteria laid down by British Cycling. And when he first applied for a place on the Olympic academy he nearly didn’t make the cut because the numbers he posted in the various lab tests did not meet the required level. It took John Herety, Rod Ellingworth and Simon Lillistone to convince Peter Keen that an exception should be made for Cavendish because they felt he had a winner’s instinct.

In 2003, Ellingworth was in the process of setting up the British Cycling Academy. It took a bit of persuading to get it off the ground. “Peter Keen was concerned,” he says. “It’s not that he wasn’t supportive, but he was concerned about setting it up in Olympic year.

“I had to present my pitch to Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton, Doug Dailey, Peter Keen and John Herety,” he says. “I said to them, ‘Just give me a budget and you won’t hear a single problem from me; then, when the Olympics are over, see what I’ve done and if you don’t like it, we’ll stop it.’ I think it cost about £100,000 to run the whole thing that year. That covered everything. I went to Terry Dolan and we got some really solid but basic aluminium frames. I used Shimano Ultegra, not Dura-Ace. They had one road bike, one low-profile track bike and one track bike. They didn’t have a training bike, they had to take care of their one road bike. Their kit was really basic.”

The six riders taken on were Matt Brammeier, who’s joining Quick-Step next season, Ed Clancy, an Olympic champion, Bruce Edgar, Christian Varley, Tom White and Cavendish, who almost didn’t make it.

“Mark never made it onto the Talent Team as a junior because they only looked at the numbers at the time,” says Ellingworth. “He didn’t make the Junior Worlds either, even though he won bike races. It wound him up. He’s always been the same, quite chopsy in that respect.”

When he turned up at Manchester to start life at the Academy, Cavendish didn’t look much like your stereotypical cyclist. He was overweight. In training he struggled on every hill. A number of times he was almost in tears after getting dropped. “The thing about Mark was he never, ever gave up,” says Ellingworth. “He was so determined to get better and his progress was quick because his fitness level when he came to us was pretty low.”

But having spent the months leading up to joining the Academy in the late-autumn of 2003 working in a bank, Cavendish had something that some of the others didn’t: he’d had a taste of real life. “Some of the lads struggled with living away and taking responsibility for themselves,” says Ellingworth. “The cycling made them tired and grumpy but they were fine with that. Where they struggled was with living, the cooking, the cleaning, the discipline. Mark never had a problem with that. He was tidy and organised.

“Recently I was with some of the juniors on a trip and I said ‘Have you had to take time off school to come here?’ They laughed at me. I said ‘Well, you must be missing something while you’re here?’ One or two said they were missing college but one lad was completely silent. I said: ‘What have you been doing?’ He smirked at me and said: ‘I’ve just been racing, training, resting and playing my X-Box.’ I asked what else he was doing since May and he said that he was waiting to join the Academy in November. I just counted the months on my fingers and left it at that. The thing is, if he’s in the Academy, what’s he going to do? Riding your bike full-time as a junior isn’t what we want in our programme. We want people to be more rounded than that. Mark worked. He got out there and earned money.”

Academy life was hard. In Richard Moore’s recent book, Sky’s The Limit, there’s an eye-watering account of when Cavendish crashed in Madison training and got a track splinter through his penis. Fortunately, the doctor managed to pull it out cleanly and Cavendish took it home in his backpack.

Training was hard. They worked from eight in the morning until six in the evening. Road training, French lessons, track training. And they raced, a lot.

Ellingworth designed a matrix to assess the riders and Cavendish came out on top. “There were a lot of questions and the answers were weighted according to how important they were. Can they win bike races? Can they organise their time? What’s their ergo test like? Do they understand the Madison or team pursuit? Mark came out on top. And he was super-fast.”

By March 2004, Cavendish had made huge improvements. At the Girvan three-day race in Scotland he won his first major race, riding for the Academy team, which was called Team Persil, sponsored by the washing powder firm.

“He got dropped over the hill and was chasing back on,” says Ellingworth. “He was in the cars but I didn’t give him any help. There was no sticky bottle or pacing him or anything like that.”

Cavendish got back up to the front group and then won the sprint ahead of Julian Winn and Tony Gibb. The next morning they missed the break. “We had the yellow jersey but this big group went up the road and they didn’t have anyone in it,” says Ellingworth.

“They’d missed it by not paying attention so I made them all ride on the front for the whole stage. I knew they wouldn’t get it back but I made them ride anyway – even when Cav was dropped. They were absolutely finished, poor sods, but that was one of the things I was trying to drill into them. You’re racing the race. You’ve got the yellow jersey, don’t just let something go up the road.”

Madison glory
Madison training was one of the main aspects of the Ellingworth regime. It was difficult to master and potentially dangerous but it taught the riders so many skills.

As they whizzed round the track perfecting their handslings they learned to ride fast, to pedal smoothly, to handle the bikes, and not to rely on the breaks of a missed pedal rev to get themselves out of a tight spot. They also learned how to hold a wheel and ride close to others.

In March 2005, Cavendish was still six weeks short of his 20th birthday. He travelled to Los Angeles for the World Track Championships. He just missed out on a bronze medal in the scratch race, finishing fourth behind Alex Rasmusson, Greg Henderson and Matthew Gilmore. Then he rode the Madison with Rob Hayles.

Hayles was supposed to partner Geraint Thomas but a few weeks earlier, the Welshman had crashed while training on the road in Australia and had to have his spleen removed.

“That was the Worlds where we made the breakthrough and won the team pursuit for the first time,” says Hayles. “The mood in the camp was really good but Cav was so gutted after the scratch race. He really wanted a medal.

“I was in bits after the team pursuit but as we were getting ready to go out, I said ‘Come on, let’s get you a stripy jumper as well, then.’ He giggled at that.

“I knew him as this kid – I don’t want to use the word arrogant because he really isn’t – but he was the lad who turned up at Manchester in the gold Vauxhall Corsa with the full body kit and the word Goldfinger written in the window.

“We’d trained together but we’d never done a Madison together. Our first ever handsling was on about lap three.

“I think it was the first time the Madison world title had been won on laps. We didn’t win any points but we gained a lap with about 33 laps to go. It was absolute purgatory staying on. Cav got us dropped again by sitting on the Argentinians while they were going backwards but even though we were half a lap off the front of the race, we weren’t going to get lapped.

“We swapped over for the last time with about three laps to go and I shook his hand and said, “Well done,” and he went mad at me because we hadn’t won it yet.

“He was in tears on the podium when he got his stripy jersey. We did an interview with Jill Douglas [of the BBC] and he said, ‘I’ve waited so long for this.’ I looked at him and shook my head. He was 19 and he’d waited so long!

“We rode the six-days that winter and I looked after him. He’s one of those lads you can’t help wanting to help because he’s so thankful. He’s got to a place where he expects people to do their job for him now but he is genuinely grateful. Over the years, he’s been misunderstood by a lot of people.”

Project rainbow jersey
Mark Cavendish’s victory in Copenhagen was the result of three years of meticulous planning by British Cycling.

In the aftermath of a golden summer in 2008, Dave Brailsford and Rod Ellingworth got round to the subject of what it would take to win the men’s elite road race at the World Championships.

Great Britain had just dominated on the track at the Beijing Olympics, winning seven of the 10 gold medals on offer. Nicole Cooke had won the road race but, already, British Cycling was looking ahead.

Cavendish’s Beijing experience had turned sour. He was the only one of Great Britain’s track riders to return home without a medal. His bid for the Madison title, with Bradley Wiggins, had fallen well short. Wiggins was tired after riding the individual and team pursuit competitions.

However much it stung Cavendish to miss out on a medal in Beijing, the fact he had emerged as one of the fastest sprinters in the world during that summer’s Tour de France, winning four stages, was more than a consolation.

As summer gave way to autumn, Ellingworth began to put his plans in place. Project Rainbow Jersey was born.

Ellingworth assessed the venues for the next three World Championship road races. Mendrisio, Switzerland, in 2009 would be too hilly for Cavendish. Melbourne in 2010 might offer an outside chance but Copenhagen, in 2011, was quickly identified as the best opportunity.

The World Championships rarely offer a chance for the sprinters. The last flat course was in Zolder in 2002, when a 12-man Italian team dominated the closing stages to set up Mario Cipollini. Ellingworth knew that Copenhagen offered not only the best chance, but most likely the only chance, for potentially, seven or eight years.

Ellingworth’s first job was to identify the challenges facing Great Britain. Why had no British rider won the World title since Tom Simpson in 1965? One by one, he began answering the questions and putting his plans into practice.

It all hinged on the idea of creating a Great Britain team. Ellingworth wanted to develop a squad of riders with strength in depth. He wanted the time to come when Great Britain could line up as equals alongside the big nations such as Italy, Belgium and Spain.

So, although Cavendish was the key man, the potential champion, his success would rely on how quickly Great Britain could harness the available resources and nurture younger riders and fashion them into a team strong enough to compete.

Cycling Weekly spent some time with Ellingworth in Manchester in December 2008 when Project Rainbow Jersey was still an in-house secret.

Ellingworth took charge of regular coaching sessions, running through what he calls ‘skills and drills’. Groups of seven or eight riders would train in the Cheshire lanes, simulating breakaways and practising lead-outs. They’d take turns on the front, wind the pace up and lead out a designated sprinter to a road sign.

When their pro teams allowed, the likes of Cavendish, Wiggins, Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas would join the sessions, but most of the time it was a mixture of experienced stalwarts like Rob Hayles and Chris Newton together with young riders such as Steven Burke, Peter Kennaugh and the Academy riders. The idea was to build a national team that shared a work ethic, learned from one another and gained strength as each of the component parts added to their repertoire.

Initial challenges
Challenge 1: Identify a rider capable of winning the Worlds
“Let’s not beat about the bush,” said Ellingworth in 2008. “If we’re going to win the Worlds, it is most likely going to be with Cav isn’t it? In the meantime, someone might come through who could give you chances in a different type of race but with what we have now, we need to build a team around Cavendish.”

Challenge 2: Identify a course they could win on.
Mendrisio was rejected as too hilly. Melbourne was a possible but Copenhagen was the most likely option.

Challenge 3: Build a team capable of supporting Cavendish
Back in 2008, when Team Sky was in the pipeline but was still more than a year away from happening, the job of qualifying enough places in the Worlds was a tough ask. Although the likes of Roger Hammond, Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings were part of professional teams, they were not prolific points-scorers in the ProTour rankings. In order to field a strong team, Great Britain needed more pros and more UCI point-scorers.

The first big breakthrough came in March 2009, when Cavendish won Milan-San Remo. The level of planning and attention to detail that went into winning that race, which many thought beyond him, was staggering. He rode the course with Erik Zabel. He studied every inch of the hills and the crucial corners. He planned a strategy based on the optimum positioning at all key points on the course. Was it best to stay up front on the flat and then drift back on the hills, allowing him to save his legs a little for the sprint?

Milan-San Remo is more than 290 kilometres. After Cavendish’s win, there was no doubt he could peak for a long, difficult road race and still produce an extraordinary sprint. Project Rainbow Jersey had taken a big jump forwards.

In 2009, thanks largely to Cavendish’s wins and Wiggins’s fourth place in the Tour de France, Great Britain earned the full quota of nine places. Cavendish was unable to start the Mendrisio race with illness and Cummings and Roger Hammond were the only British riders to finish, neither of them in the front group. But Ellingworth was already noting the positives, and every rider in that race had a job to do and a target to aim for.

Last year, Team Sky should, in theory, have boosted Great Britain’s chances of fielding a nine-man team in Melbourne.

However, they failed to make the top 10 of the UCI’s national rankings and had to settle on just three places. Neither Cavendish, Jeremy Hunt nor David Millar finished the race but Ellingworth said they learned a lot. “There were small mistakes we made last year that really helped us this year,” he says.

“The way we structured our final preparations for the race were tweaked. We didn’t have the problem of flying to Melbourne to contend with but last year Mark definitely panic-trained a bit and did too much. Then we didn’t get his resting period quite right.”

The biggest challenge in 2011 was to ensure enough British riders scored UCI points. “We’ve had regular meetings and little training camps over the last three years and I send out an email bulletin every few weeks updating everyone on where we are at,” says Ellingworth.

“One thing I was determined wasn’t going to happen was that a rider could say to me ‘Oh, I didn’t know…’ They knew everything, where we stood in the rankings, how the team would be selected, when we were getting together. Of course, not every rider could make every get-together but the idea was to keep them structured but informal. Missing a get-together didn’t mean you were out of the picture either.”

Britain was comfortably inside the top 10 in the rankings and eight different riders had scored points, just one short of the maximum number. “That was absolutely key to everything,” says Ellingworth.

Part two: How Mark Cavendish won the World Championships>>

Mark Cavendish factfile
Age: 26
Born: Douglas, Isle of Man, May 26, 1985
Turned pro: 2007
World titles: Madison, with Rob Hayles 2005 (Los Angeles)
Madison, with Bradley Wiggins 2008 (Manchester)
Road race 2011 (Copenhagen)
Tour de France: 20 stage wins
(four in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2010, five in 2011)
Green jersey, 2011
Giro d’Italia: five stage wins
Wore the pink jersey in 2009
Vuelta a España: three stage wins
Wore the red jersey in 2010
Classics: Milan-San Remo 2009
Total pro wins: 74
Mark Cavendish: Rider Profile>>

Related links

Mark Cavendish wins World Champs road race (report)

This article originally appeared in the October 6 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine