Ask Mark Cavendish if 2014 was the most challenging year of his career and you’ll more than likely get the same defiant answer. “I won 11 races last year,” he snaps, as we sit down for our interview, “with six weeks out with injury, it’s not bad you know.”
We’re at a hotel in the Spanish coastal town of Calpe. As well as being a tranquil haven for expats who’ve escaped their grey northern European winters in search of constant sunshine, it’s an ideal location for cycling teams to hold their winter training camps, thanks to the varied mountainous terrain that skirts the edges of the town and its relative calm in the winter months.
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It’s here that Cavendish and his Etixx-QuickStep team are making their final preparations for the new season, which he began at the week-long Tour de San Luis in January.
It’s a season which the Manxman surely hopes will run smoother than 2014. After all, it’s the first time since the infancy of his road career in 2007 that he’s not been able to end a season with a Grand Tour in his legs. That year was his first attempt at the Tour de France, and he climbed off as the race reached its first push into the Alps.
It was also the last time the UK hosted a Grand Départ for the Tour before it returned for its Yorkshire spectacular last year. Between those two points Cavendish built himself into the Tour sprinter, taking 25 stage wins in an unparalleled reign of dominance.
Which made it seem, at least from the outside, an even more crushing blow to watch his dream of claiming the maillot jaune, and victory on home roads, come quite literally crashing down in front of him. But Cavendish remains resolute in not appearing rueful when he recalls the first stage of last year’s race.
“It was incredible,” he says as he reflects on the scenes that unfolded on the slopes of the Côte de Cray, Buttertubs and Grinton Moor.
“It’s the biggest Grand Départ that there’s been in cycling, not just the race but everything around it,” he says. “To see the amount of people out to watch a bike race — OK, it’s the Tour de France and it’s a big race — but it was incredible to be part of, even if for a brief moment.”
In early 2014, Cavendish was quoted as saying: “Harrogate is going to be what my whole season is built around.” But all he was able to take away with him from the finishing straight on West Park was a separated shoulder that required surgery, and a sustained period away from racing.
So how did the crash affect his approach to the new season? “I had to start earlier,” he says. “After the enforced break in July, I didn’t really need a good three or four weeks off in October and November, so I just started training pretty much after the World Championships road race ended and that was about it. I did pretty much a similar thing.”
One change that Cavendish did make, however, was a return to the track in December partnering team-mate Iljo Keisse at the Six Days of Ghent and Zurich. Earlier in the day that we met, Cavendish dismissed the idea of a track comeback for the Rio Olympics in 2016, but returning to his roots as a former world Madison champion, in his words, provided him with “a short-term goal to work with” prior to the road season.
“That did him good,” said QuickStep directeur sportif Brian Holm, who was part of the set-up that saw Cavendish’s rise to glory at HTC-Colombia.
“To keep him busy in the winter was quite good, he’s good on the track and after a few days he picked up. He was probably having a bit of a hard time after the first two days in Ghent but then he was getting better and better.”
Of course, there is little left for Cavendish, aged 29, to prove. A world champion, a Monument winner, all those Grand Tour stage wins and the acquisition of the nickname ‘the fastest man on two wheels’ means that it’s almost impossible to dispute his stature as a bike racer.
But the cycling landscape is very different now than it was a few years ago, and Holm agrees. The emergence of Marcel Kittel in particular has given Cavendish a new challenge to rise to.
“I just think in general the challenge is bigger,” says Holm. “Five years ago with HTC he basically just smoked them. It’s a bit more difficult now than when we were only really battling with Tyler Farrar and [José Joaquín] Rojas — now Kittel has a good lead-out train, André Greipel with a good lead-out train, Alexander Kristoff, he’s just good, he can basically do it on his own.”
Cavendish though, is keen to put the emphasis on the rise of stronger, more organised and more formidable sprint-focused teams, rather than simply placing the credit at the feet of the individual riders. “It is harder now with the amount of sprint teams that are out there,” he says. “There’s so many lead-out trains now and that makes it harder.”
Another factor that could, and has previously made Cavendish’s job at the Tour that much harder in the past, is the presence of a general classification contender in his team.
He was particularly vocal in his autobiography, At Speed, about the frustrations of having to curb his green jersey and stage aspirations while riding with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky in 2012, so it seemed pertinent to ask how Colombian climber, Rigoberto Uran, would affect the sprinter’s ambitions, now that his team have announced that Uran will likely ride the Tour.
“You’ll have to speak to the management,” he tells me. He also declines to elaborate on whether he’s already earmarked any stages for the 2015 Tour.
As for the management, they seem optimistic about the prospect of combining sprint and GC ambitions. “They can do it,” says Holm. “I mean we wouldn’t need eight lead-out guys would we?
“We’ve got Mark Renshaw and we’d probably have one or two others that can do it [lead out] but we’d never end up with eight anyway. Let’s see how he [Uran] survives the Giro first and then talk full GC ambitions. I could imagine he’ll go full-on for GC in the Giro, and then start the Tour and take it step by step.”
Still, after so many years of winning, how does a racer like Cavendish continue to motivate himself?
It’s a very personal motivation, he says, and though he insists adulation from fans is not what he’s ever been after, he’s proud to be part of the growth of cycling in Britain.
“Apart from the fact of cycling growing in the country, to see people out on their bikes, that makes me proud,” he says.
“Whatever form of cycling it is, to know people are doing it and that people are understanding it, it’s a really nice thing to have been part of that revolution.
“[But] I don’t do it for what other people think, apart from my family. I’m not doing it for myself now, I’m doing it for my family.”
One thing’s for sure — Mark Cavendish isn’t going to go messing with a winning formula for 2015, and the same determination and stubborn refusal to lose that he’s always thrived on drives him still. But the circumstances have changed. As more teams adapt and build their gameplan around towing a sprinter as fast as they can to the finish, it’s more difficult for Cavendish to dominate in the way many have now come to expect him to.
As Holm says: “Kittel is good. In a pure clean sprint he’s bloody fast, we have to admit that. But now Cav’s fast like he was before, he’s probably pulling the same watts as he was before.
“The challenge is just bigger.”
Cavendish on his teammates
Mark Cavendish is a great example of a team player. So is this Etixx-QuickStep team the best he’s ever had? He’s not so sure, but stresses that it’s not a team just made for him.
“Every team I’ve ever been with has been good in its own way. But I love it here,” he says. “I’m not happy to leave home, but it’s a pleasure to race with the riders, to spend days with the staff.
“The fact is it’s not a team built round me. It’s like HTC was — we go out and want to win, just want to race together and win.”
Cavendish is effusive about the joy he takes from watching his teammates win, whether riding with them or just watching them on TV. In fact, he says he’d never felt the need to watch a cyclo-cross race until Zdenek Stybar won the World Championships last February.
“When I watched Zdenek in the cyclo-cross, it was the first cyclo-cross race I’ve ever watched in my life and I was just screaming at the TV, you know!” he says.
“You get the same feeling if it’s me crossing the line first or if it’s one of my team-mates in the race crossing the line first, or if it’s a guy at another race from me and I’m watching them on the TV winning.
“As long as they’ve got this jersey on, it makes me proud to be part of it.”
This interview first appeared in the February 5th edition of Cycling Weekly