It’s a relatively quiet morning in East London. Relatively because of Mark Cavendish, who is barking orders at Caleb Ewan as the pair whizz round the track at the London Olympic velodrome.
The two WorldTour riders are taking it in turns to slingshot each other for the assembled photographers, with Cavendish showing the rider nine years his junior slight alterations to perfect his hand positioning.
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Cavendish may live to regret this help when he lines up against the Australian at Six Day London in October, which the pair are here to promote, especially as Ewan has flown over from Monaco just for the day and probably didn’t envisage a day of Madison practice with a former world champion.
Owain Doull is also lurking around, visibly knackered, having come in on the red-eye after completing his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, less than 24 hours earlier.
Doull will partner Cavendish at Six Day London, and the Manxman is the more chipper of the pair, being blessed with no Grand Tour in his legs and instead coming off the back off a Tour of Britain in front of ever-adulatory crowds.
Six-day racing began just up the road in Islington, in 1878, when David Stanton was wagered £100 he couldn’t ride 1,000 miles in six successive days on a penny farthing. Stanton won his bet in just 73 hours, averaging 13.5mph.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and racing has changed quite a bit, but what would the prize have to be for Cavendish to accept such a wager?
“The prize would be not having to do it with anyone else, not having to race anyone for it. Just doing it. If I’m riding my bike, I’m happy,” he says.
One other rider he will have to race against next month is the new European road race champion Elia Viviani (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), who has had a fruitful 2019 and will provide fierce competition.
Viviani has at times mirrored Cavendish’s career, both landing at Sky before moving on to an iteration of Patrick Lefevere’s Quick-Step squad, but the pair have known each other long before they traded track for tarmac.
“I’ve known Elia a long time race because we raced on the track,” says Cavendish, “and actually Caleb came from a track background as well. We’re all quite similar kind of riders, having come from a track background, a speed background, we’re fast sprinters you know.
“There’s this rise of these powerful guys in the sprints these last few years on the road, we’ve all kept it real being the little guy with the fast legs coming from the track, so I think it’s quite apt that the strongest ever field at the Six Day London should have those three fast sprinters of a generation.”
Speaking of generations, Cavendish’s poor luck with his diagnosis and subsequent recovery from the Epstein-Barr virus, as well as Marcel Kittel’s retirement, has led to a changing of the guard amongst the peloton’s fast men and coming up against Ewan and Viviani will no doubt remind Cavendish of this.
Although not a team event, Ewan is dressed in his Lotto-Soudal strip and Doull reluctantly takes off his t-shirt and jeans and pulls on an Ineos jersey for the press photos.
Cavendish is wearing a standard black jersey and shorts, but after a number of different poses and formations, Cavendish gets changed into the green colours of his South African squad for a final couple of snaps.
His contract with Dimension Data is up at the end of 2019, with whispers of a move to Bahrain-Merida and a reunion with Rod Ellingworth doing the rounds. Cavendish seems relaxed and composed, though, and refuses to be drawn on his future. Specifically, whether he’s still in the hunt for a spot on the GB squad for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Back when Cavendish’s return to Six Day London was announced, he said it was an “opportunity to prepare for 2020 in the most competitive arena”. Does that mean it’s still one of his main goals going forward?
“Yeah we’ll see what happens,” the 34-year-old says, cagily, “I’m going to focus on what I’m doing right now and see what comes from that.”
The qualification process to get to Tokyo isn’t based on results alone, which will likely be a factor that comes to Cavendish’s aid, with British Cycling able to use a variety of factors to reason for the inclusion of a rider in their squad.
At Rio 2016, Cavendish was beaten by Viviani in the Omnium, and is still on the hunt for a Gold medal, having focused on the road race in London 2012 and his Madison attempt alongside Bradley Wiggins in 2008 falling flat.
Cavendish understands that switching between road and track isn’t the easiest accomplishment, but backs himself to be able to do it, his confidence possibly revealing his desire to have one last shot at an Olympic Games next year.
“It’s not the fact I have to get myself in that mindset [to switch between track and road]. I did them both growing up so I know how to do it anyway, but it’s the physical thing, it’s pretty hard to to change from one to the other.
“Like before Rio, Viviani stopped on the road three months before, Wiggins stopped a year before. It shows how hard it is. Fortunately, I know how to do it, I’ve done it my whole career, but it doesn’t make it easier. It’s quite hard on the body, it takes its toll.”
It’s clear, though, that regardless of the decisions made on Cavendish’s road and track futures, that he has not lost his love for racing. Asked what he would change about Six Day London if he could wave a magic wand, he requests a shorter track. “[It makes] faster racing, more action going on. A smaller track is better. It’s harder to race, it’s harder on the body but as a spectator, it makes for much more interesting racing. You cannot beat a smaller track.”
And his favourite moment on the track? “It could be any of my three world titles,” Cavendish says in a matter of fact way, it’s hard for a man with such a palmarès to avoid inadvertent boasts, “but it’s finishing my career with Brad at the Six Days of Ghent.
“We rode here at the Six Day London and we didn’t quite win, we messed up the change, which we never really did in our career. We lost the Six Day here, went to Ghent, which is actually the race we started our partnership with in 2007. We smashed it on our first Six Day there so to go back after everything we’ve done in cycling, it was a pretty emotional win, you know, at Ghent, Ghent! It was pretty special.”
Six Day London returns to the velodrome in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from 22nd – 27th October for more world class track cycling amidst a party atmosphere. Tickets from £19 at ticketmaster.co.uk/sixdaylondon.
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