The Wednesday Comment


As Wayne Rooney walked off the pitch after England’s dreadful goalless draw with Algeria on Friday, he turned to the television camera, his face snarling, and said: “Nice to hear your home fans boo you.” There was a swear word chucked in there somewhere and the hurt and frustration not only at his own poor performance but at the reaction of the fans was plain to see.

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I don’t know whether it was the slight similarity in their accents, but as soon as I saw Rooney do that, I thought of Mark Cavendish.

Both are phenomenally talented. Both have enjoyed periods when they have been untouchable, at the very top of their respective games. And, at the moment, both are struggling for form and having to deal with the public consequences of failing to hit the heights while the world watches and dissects every movement.

Following two-and-a-half years during which nothing went wrong, it’s been a very different story for Cavendish this year. Hardly anything has gone right. There have been a series of problems off the bike, problems that the public know a little of but which have nevertheless been discussed in detail. It is baffling, really, to see such weight of opinion based on one-line facts.

As for the cycling, Cavendish always intended to start the season more slowly than last year. The plan was to hit a peak for the Tour de France, with the green jersey his ultimate aim, then carry that on to the World Championships in early October. Even before the tooth infection, he was never intending to be at his best in the spring.

And, of course, as the media and the fans are entitled to do, they asked why the results were not flowing as freely. After all, by the time the Tour de France came round last year, he already had 13 wins in the bag – including Milan-San Remo. This time he has three – of course there were going to be comparisons and, from those who had not read and understood the gist of Cavendish’s and HTC’s season-long plan, criticism.

Cavendish does not take criticism from others too well. That is probably because he is a searing self-critic. No one is harder on him than he is himself. But the difference, as he sees it, is that he knows himself and is equipped to judge. Others do not and are not.

Unfortunately, the world of professional sport is one where people can turn on the television, watch 10 minutes of an England game and decide they’re rubbish. That’s the way it is.

So, when Cavendish won a stage at the Tour of Romandy in the spring, he crossed the line with two fingers up. It was a gesture that drew criticism and his HTC-Columbia team pulled him out of the race, a tacit admission that he’d done wrong.

For an interview with Cycling Weekly magazine last week (June 17), we asked him how he felt about that gesture and the controversy now. He said: “I don’t feel anything. I don’t think anything of it now. It was blown out of proportion. Do you know where that gesture came from? It came from Agincourt. When the French caught the British archers, they used to cut those two fingers off so they couldn’t use the bow. Archers who hadn’t been caught used to wave those two fingers to say ‘I’ve still got what I’ve got.’

“My gesture was a metaphor. That’s all. I was saying ‘I’ve still got what I’ve got.’ If I’d wanted to be vulgar I’d have put my middle finger up.

“The problem was, the exact same people it was aimed at are the ones who took exception to it. They’re the ones who want to see me fail. I didn’t say “all journalists know nothing about bike racing”. I said “the journalists who know nothing”. That’s not all journalists. It’s the ones who don’t understand bike racing and it’s these daylight-deprived forum people.”

Now, whether you want to accept what Cavendish says or you’re minded to think he acted first, realised a storm had blown up and then Googled for an excuse, is up to you.

Certainly, it’s rare to see a cyclist whose personality in real life is so out of step with the perception held by so many of the public.

I do not profess to know Mark Cavendish on any level other than that of journalist and sportsman. And I can certainly see why some incidents have caused people to come to a conclusion about him. But if there’s one thing he is not, it is one-dimensional or stupid.

Working at the Tour de France, I winced as he issued the most withering of put downs to a TV reporter who had asked a pretty basic question. It was not a stupid question, but it was one of those open-ended ones that TV people like to throw at sports people who have just emerged from the heat of battle. It is designed to get the subject talking and, mindful of the fact that a UK television audience may not be made up exclusively of cycling anoraks, it was a general question. On that occasion, Cavendish made the guy’s job miserable and it made it more difficult to have sympathy with his argument that the riders deserve more respect than to have a microphone shoved in their faces immediately after a race. I gather that particular exchange was not broadcast but even with the sneer turned down to an eight, Cavendish can make uncomfortable viewing straight after a race. People at home may think: “Who the hell is this guy?”

On the flip side, I have spent time listening to an obviously intelligent and perceptive person peeling away the layers of what it is to ride a professional bike race. With patience, wit and insight, he has explained what cycling means to him. [See the interviews in Cycle Sport in June 2009 and May 2010].

He is a challenging young man, for sure. He makes you think more carefully than most about the next question. He turns your questions back round on you, and asks you to put yourself in his shoes for a moment. He doesn’t tolerate lazy thinking or ill-thought out logic. And that doesn’t make him a bad person. Far from it.

As one of the sport’s all-or-nothing characters, it was no surprise that he was embroiled in controversy again at the Tour of Switzerland. The crash between him and Heinrich Haussler was one thing, but the spitting incident after it was another and cannot be condoned.

The reaction from fans who want to allocate blame – 50-50, or 70-30 or 100-0 – miss the point. Sport, like life, isn’t like that, even when discussing something as simple as a crash. People will review the footage on YouTube over and over and they will see what they want to see. It was a crash. Neither Cavendish nor Haussler significantly altered their direction of travel in the very closing stages. The problem was, they were both heading towards the middle of the road. They were on a collision course. These things happen.

Once he’d calmed down and had time to think, Cavendish tried to contact Haussler afterwards to apologise for spitting on him. The following morning a small number of riders protested – not at the dangerous riding, they say, but at Cavendish’s attitude. It was the classic case of seizing the opportunity to take a dominant rider down a peg or two. And that’s fair enough too, that’s top level sport. Everyone is looking for an edge and if his rivals think they can do that by undermining him in front of his peers, they will.

After his minor outburst, Wayne Rooney issued a statement apologising for any offence caused. Or rather the Football Association did on his behalf. I have yet to see any of the parties interested in the future of Mark Cavendish step in to do a similar piece of damage-limitation work. Instead, he flew back to the Isle of Man for a family funeral.

With the Tour coming up, expectation levels are going to be very high. People who have not necessarily been following cycling closely these past 11 months will turn on their TV remembering Cavendish’s six stage wins from last year. They will expect more of the same.

Can Cavendish win a large handful of stages and the green jersey? Yes, of course he can. Will he? It remains to be seen.

But if he doesn’t meet the highest expectations, it won’t mean he’s a bad sprinter. He’s just a great sprinter going through a bad patch.

For an interview with Mark Cavendish see the July 1 edition of Cycling Weekly

The course for this weekend’s men’s and women’s road races at the National Championship in Lancashire promises fireworks.

The seven-mile circuit is made up of mostly narrow lanes and it’s up and down all the way. Positioning will be of great importance, particularly as the main hill on the course will be enough to stretch the bunch into a line if they hit it hard.

Eurosport will show the men’s race live for the first time, offering a chance to see most of the country’s top riders in action.

But it could be that the women’s race is where the drama is. Nicole Cooke is going for her 10th consecutive title – and 11th in total. But Emma Pooley, the form rider, has a great chance of breaking that sequence.

At the Giro del Trentino at the weekend, Pooley won her seventh major event of the year – making her the most successful British rider on the road this season.

If pushed to make a prediction, I’ll say Pooley will attack and break away to win. She has no option if she’s going to win because if it comes down to a head-to-head sprint, Cooke will win.

And the men’s race will be one for those hardened by a diet of continental racing this season. Team Sky will be there in numbers so it’s their’s to lose. In fact, there should be an inquest if they do lose it. Geraint Thomas could be a good bet, judging by the way he was climbing at the Dauphiné. And if it’s not a Sky rider, what about David Millar, who apparently wants to wear the national champion’s jersey at the Tour de France?

Last month, The Wednesday Comment pointed out that Andrew McQuaid, son of the UCI’s president, works for a sports agency that represents a number of pro riders, including Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and Dan Martin.

We asked whether there were any measures in place to monitor these relationships. We also asked if there was any plan to introduce a scheme to accredit riders’ agents and to introduce a code of conduct, as there is in football and other sports.

Last week, at its latest meeting in Birmingham, the UCI announced it would be introducing an accreditation scheme for agents, to be effective from January 2012, which has to be a good thing to ensure that the rights and interests of the riders are properly looked after.

In English football they talk about this being the golden generation.

Well, in cycling, Britain really is enjoying such a thing.

As it stands at the moment, there should be more British riders on the start sheet for the Tour de France this year than at any time since 1968.

That year, 10 men lined up for the Great Britain team. They were: Bob Addy, John Clarey, Vin Denson, Derek Green, Derek Harrison, Barry Hoban, Colin Lewis, Arthur Metcalfe, Hugh Porter and Michael Wright.

It was also the last time the Tour was run on a national team basis. After that, it reverted to sponsored teams and that meant the places for British riders dried up.

Since 1969 to 2003, there have been only three years (1976, 2004 and 2005) when there hasn’t been a single British rider in the race.

But this year, it looks like there will be seven British riders in the Tour.

Team Sky will field three – Bradley Wiggins, Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas – Garmin have David Millar, Omega Pharma looks set to field Charly Wegelius, Mark Cavendish will ride for HTC-Columbia and Jeremy Hunt will finally make his Tour debut, with Cervélo.

This is Hunt’s 15th season as a professional. He turned pro for Banesto in 1996. He’s 36 years old and this is his first taste of the Tour.

So British fans will have seven riders to follow. That’s one more than in 1987 when Sean Yates, Robert Millar, Malcolm Elliott, Graham Jones, Adrian Timmis and Paul Watson started in West Berlin. The last four of those rode for ANC-Halfords, which was the last British-run team to take part in the Tour.

Interesting to note that an influential poll in Texas – the Tops in Texas contest – has opened voting for the Top Texas Sports Hero of All Time Contest.

Even more interesting to note that Lance Armstrong has been left off the list of nominees.

A spokesman for the awards said: “As we researched our top ten nominees, we felt that [those] notably left off the list have pressing questions regarding their potential to be immortalised as Top Texas Sports Hero of All Time.”

Quite a statement from Armstrong’s home state.

The Wednesday Comment will return after the Tour de France. In the meantime, there will be the usual comment, incisive analysis and news on and in the magazine. Enjoy the race.