“Eddy Merckx’s 34 stage wins at the Tour de France, is it on your mind?”
“At the minute, no. But I get asked about it in every interview so it’s hard not to think about it”
“It’s a new lease of life for you in this team?”
“Nah, I don’t know.”
“You don’t consider it a new start?”
“Why should I?”
“Because you had two difficult years?”
“You don’t need a new start after two years.”
“Is 34 Tour stage wins just another number?”
“You Belgians love a quote…”
“We’re journalists, that’s our job!”
Part of these journalists’ job for the past week has been chasing Mark Cavendish around the desert on the outskirts of Riyadh, asking every morning and evening for an interview with the star attraction at the debut Saudi Tour.
Every morning and evening their request is rebutted, until the end of the final stage, 30 minutes before Cavendish is set to fly home following his first race for Bahrain-McLaren.
Soon after sitting down it quickly becomes apparent why he’s kept the media at arm’s length.
“Why have you spent the week acting as lead-out man for the relatively unknown Phil Bauhaus?” “Which races will you be trying to win this year?” “Can you understand why people say you’re past it?” Each of these questions is met with an icy glare. At one point we all sit in silence for 23 seconds as Cavendish locks eyes with one reporter who dared to ask whether the sprinter feels reborn at Bahrain-McLaren.
It’s an uncomfortable silence, but everyone waits. What are 20 seconds when you’ve been waiting a whole week for this 10-minute conversation? Cavendish keeps his mouth firmly shut, letting the quiet wash over him, seemingly going through in his head what the self-proclaimed “fast talker” would really like to say out loud.
Of course, these questions come with the territory, which Cavendish understands. Although, hours after helping your team take a second stage win and overall victory in your first race of the season it must feel particularly galling to be faced with people picking apart why, despite the evidence, you’re actually not a winner.
“If someone’s calling you out for not winning then you’ve done something well in your career, 95 per cent of bike riders don’t win a bike race, I can be quite happy with what I’ve done,” Cavendish retorts.
Having previously let his team-mate Bauhaus slip off the front of the peloton on the run-in to the finish line, as Bahrain-McLaren’s rivals kept too close an eye on Cavendish, the final stage saw the former world champion give Bauhaus a proper lead out to claim victory. Cavendish is quick to correct anyone who sees this as a downgrading in stature.
“I’ve led out before, if you go for GC you go for GC,” Cavendish tells Cycling Weekly. “I’ve ridden on the front in the mountains to win the yellow jersey of the Tour de France with Brad [Wiggins], it’s nothing new.”
“But it’s not your common role?” comes the next barb.
“Common role… every cyclist’s common role is to get their team to win, display your sponsors while crossing the line with your hands in the air,” Cavendish says.
“And if you look at the most efficient way to do that usually as the sprinter they’d put me on the back of the train, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know what to do, that I don’t enjoy racing [as an occasional lead-out man] it doesn’t mean any of that at all. A job’s a job and we all get the same feeling if we win.”
There is truth to this. Cavendish’s finish line celebrations are proof he’s already gelled well with his new team and in the team’s hotel, the 34-year-old is spotted on multiple occasions in the lobby dealing playing cards to his team-mates, relaxing together after a day’s racing in the desert.
Cavendish goes on to explain the differences between his last few years at Dimension Data, which were effectively ended after his omission from their 2019 Tour de France squad, and his new employers at Bahrain-McLaren.
“I’m in a very nice environment now and we can go out and control a race again,” Cavendish says. “I was always in teams that could go out and dictate how a race goes. The past few years obviously I was in a bit of a different situation.
“Now there’s strong leadership, that comes above everything. There’s a direction to where the team wants to go, it gives you something to aim for. I like working on a structure, a program, and having that helps you build towards goals, long-term and short-term.”
Part of the problem at Dimension Data was Cavendish’s diagnosis with Epstein-Barr virus, which remained undiagnosed while reporting that he wasn’t feeling himself. This resulted in an absence of performances but without the physical evidence of an injury sustained from a big crash; giving detractors ammunition to say you’re past it.
“It frustrates you but it is what it is,” Cavendish says on the people who have already written him off.
“Unfortunately, there were people who were involved in the sport who thought that [I was past it], people who were in charge of where I could go, what I could do, who thought that.
“But I’m fortunate there are people that understand it, the intelligent people in the sport and the people who matter in the sport. They understand that and I’m able to carry on as a professional bike rider.”
“Exactly like Rod.”
Cavendish’s eyes light up at the mention of the team boss he’s been reunited with who has previously played a massive part in his career.
Finally, Cavendish lets his guard down at the mention of a topic and person he would probably miss his impending flight for, given the effusiveness of his response.
“Rod’s had an impact my whole career and he’s had Epstein-Barr virus too when he was younger, so he understands it.
“I have to admit, when Mark Renshaw got it a few years ago, like, Renshaw was notoriously soft when he was sick or injured, so I was always like ‘man up’ and I actually apologised when I got it.”
Buoyed, Cavendish gives us a taste of what he actually thinks of his critics.
“It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand, it doesn’t affect you, people don’t understand it doesn’t affect you. They’ll write in their s**t magazines, s**t Twitter, I don’t care. I’ve got a job in a place that already after a couple of months I’m happy in.”
What would make Cavendish really happy is a return to the Tour de France in 2020, but Ellingworth says the understanding between them is the sprinter has work to do in order to get to that point.
“We’ll try and put the best eight riders on the line. If he’s one of the best riders and can deliver part of the objective then yes,” Ellingworth tells Cycling Weekly.
“For sure if Cav is sprinting and performing then I don’t see why he wouldn’t go. But there’s a bit of work to do and he knows that. We’re not being unrealistic. We’ve been really open and I don’t think there’s any sort of issues with any of it.”
While it’s unclear as to whether Cavendish will be sprinting and performing to make the grateful eight who make the start line in Nice for the 2020 French Grand Tour, the Manxman is pleased to have a few months to build on what he has already shown in his first week back racing.
“July is still a long way off,” he says. “The goal was to come into the season and be able to perform and I’m quite happy with where I’m at now.”
Despite the often tense interview, happy is the accurate word to describe where Cavendish is right now.
Maybe when he no longer has to worry about team sponsors, and with that the livelihood of team-mates and staff which depend on that sponsorship, he’ll feel free to let loose and tell everyone exactly what he thinks of them and their opinions. This ‘s**t magazine’ certainly hopes so.
But for now, Cavendish is entering into a new period in his career, even if he won’t admit it. He’ll be happy if this new era means victories for either himself or his team. As one of the most decorated sprinters the sport has seen, success brews further expectation. At Bahrain-McLaren, Cavendish has earned the chance and opportunity to eventually bow out gracefully.