Mark Cavendish is like a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump would say if he was an observer of the professional peloton: you never know which one you’re going to get.
With all the talent on display at Quick-Step Alpha-Vinyl’s media day for the new season, the person everyone is really waiting for an audience with is the Manxman himself.
The prospect is made even tastier by the fact the room will be full of Belgian journalists, who in their impressive multilingualism understandably rarely possess the lightness of touch needed when asking the British sprinter a question.
The first question is about the ribs he injured in his crash at the Ghent Six Day late last year.
“It’s not doing any damage, so it’s not really affecting me,” Cavendish mumbles, barely audible, causing everyone to lean in and work for their answers.
‘Has it affected your climbing?’
"I haven’t really been in the mountains."
Already we’ve plunged through the trap door. Everyone is on tenter hooks, not wishing to scare away this most elusive of beasts, and by that I mean a bike racer who’s won 34 stages of the Tour de France.
Before Cavendish sits down, whispers trickle over of the Belgian media’s conversation with Fabio Jakobsen that ended a few moments earlier, apparently striking a determined tone in that he’s the team’s number one sprinter and expects to be lining up at the Tour de France.
After what Jakobsen’s been through - not least that horrific Tour of Poland crash - it’s not a question of whether he’s brave enough to go toe-to-toe with his more senior, successful team-mate for prominence within the squad’s sprinting corps.
“He knows that the Tour is my goal and that he will ride the Giro himself,” Jakobsen said. “But he is ready as a reserve. He can do that like no other. And I think he's happy with that role.”
If anything, those sorts of declarations will only drive Cavendish on further.
“I have a job to do, that’s race my bike, and I think every year whether you’ve won or not, it’s the same - to go out and do your best and I’ll do that again."
Asked if his season plan is nailed down yet, the response is uncertain.
“Nah not yet, we have a rough idea where we’ll go but obviously I was late starting training after the crash so we have to see…I’m working every day more and more to catch up to my fitness.”
Will he try to be the team's sprinter at the Tour de France? “I’m a professional so I’ll try and win where I can and where’s best for the team."
“I’m quite happy with how my career’s gone and happy to be racing in 2022."
Has he had time yet to reflect on the year that's been? The answer is in the negative. “I never really have done that, I’m professional. I raced up until the end of November and then I crashed and then it’s on to next year. I’ll spend time after my career to look back. If you start looking back short-term you’re not moving forward, that’s been true throughout my career and still is now."
Cavendish's comeback success, after a truly dry spell of 1,159 victory-free days, was inspiring to many. That must have been a good feeling?
“The greatest thing I got from last year, I said it many times in interviews, it was quite a strange thing that people said not just 'well done' but 'thank you', something I’d never really heard before, but it meant the most to me. People have been through hard times, probably worse than I’ve been through, hopefully my story gives hope and you can fight and come back if you want to come back. And I think those 'thanks' and hopefully the inspiration people got is the biggest reward I can get."
Back to plans for this year: “Every bike rider wants to go to the Tour de France. I see that fish, it’s just there…"
Is that what gets you up in the morning?
“No I’m a professional bike rider!”
Yes, of course, but you know…
“I’m a professional bike rider. I’ll do everything I can to be fit for every race I’m preparing for. That’s the job of a professional bike rider. I did it last year even when I didn’t know my programme, I made sure I was fit for every race I went to and I’ll continue to do that. It’s what I’ve done all my career.”
‘Has cycling ever disappointed you?’
A long pause follows.
“In what sense?”
The no-nonsense Cavendish of old lingers but what we’ve been presented with today is a sentimental Cav, who emerged at times during the Tour de France last year. And, if we’re honest, probably doesn’t deserve the indignity of answering stupid questions concerning a future world of potential possibilities. But when the interview subject is as intriguing a figure, it’s too hard to resist.
Next up, we’re on to women’s cycling.
“[My son] Casper is crazy about [cycling] but [my daughter] Delilah’s been coming to races since she was a kid. Obviously now seeing not just men’s cycling grow but seeing what my female colleagues are putting into the growth of women’s cycling.
“To know they’re laying the foundations for my daughter to have the choice to ride a bike not just trying to do it but choosing to do it as a profession if she wants. And I’m fortunate that if any of my kids want to go into cycling there are greater pathways there.”
‘You post a lot about women’s cycling on social media, not a lot of male riders do that?’
“It’s bike racing…!” sometimes the exasperation is too much for Cavendish.
“Obviously I have a daughter but to see the work the girls are putting in. I can get emotional about it. They’re making a future for my daughter, you’ve got to be thankful for that.”
Tour de France or not, there certainly is a lot to be thankful for. But until we actually get to the start line in Copenhagen it’s anyone’s guess whether the greatest Tour sprinter of all time will be on it.
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.