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Mark Cavendish is the fastest road cyclist in the world but his home lies amid the serene hills, terracotta roofs and cicada song of Quarrata in Tuscany. It is a surprisingly tranquil base for the fiery poster boy of the British cycling revolution, who thrives in a world of speed and danger. When he pads out of his kitchen in his socks to greet me, accompanied by his wife Peta and his three-year-old daughter Delilah, it is hard to square the gentle family scene with the raw brutality of his occupation. Only his arms and neck, strikingly lean after months of training in the Tuscan hills, hint that Cavendish’s reputation has been forged in arguably the toughest event in professional sport.
Cavendish, 30, comes from the Isle of Man. A British sporting pioneer, he has sprinted to 25 stage wins at the Tour de France, cycling’s premier event, and appears destined to break the record of 34 held by Belgian Eddy Merckx. It would make him the most successful stage-winner in the Tour’s 112-year history — a stunning feat for a British rider in a sport traditionally dominated by continental athletes. Cavendish races for Belgian team Etixx-Quick-Step and, as a stellar talent, earns a reported £2.2m a year.
At this year’s Tour, which begins on July 4, he will cycle 3,360km in 21 days — the equivalent of riding from London to Jbel Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. He will burn more than 126,000 calories, climb 48,000 metres of vertical ascent (like travelling from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest five and a half times) and sprint for stage victories at speeds above 75kph, relying on 23mm-wide tyres to keep him upright and wearing only Lycra for protection.
“The Tour de France is ridiculously hard,” he explains when we sit down in his lounge. To prepare, he trains 30-40 hours a week and rides up to 200km a day. “People think sprinters only try in the last 200m but we must complete the whole course, then towards the end of a sprint stage we sustain 50-60kph until — when we’re already in the red — we contest a full-on sprint finish,” he says. “You have the 200 best bike riders in the world, all in the best condition of the year, which means everything is faster, everyone rides closer together, and winning and losing means so much more. It’s a rollercoaster of pain, fear, joy, crashes, excitement, boredom and pressure. But I live for it.”
While the endurance riders chase the famous yellow jersey of the general classification, and the wiry featherweights hunt the polka-dot climbers’ jersey, Cavendish battles for the green points jersey of the sprinters, who race to cross the finish line first on flat stages. They are the powerhouses of the peloton, with the swagger of heavyweight boxers, and their blistering speeds, sharp elbows and intense rivalries serve up the most exciting theatre at the Tour. “A sprint is like all the teams in the Premier League on one pitch, all trying to score in one goal,” explains Cavendish. “And it’s first goal wins.”
A master of his craft, he has won the points jerseys in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours — the Vuelta a España in 2010, the Tour de France in 2011 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013. He has also won esteemed one-day races, including Milan-San Remo in 2009 and the UCI Road World Championships in 2011 — Britain’s first champion since Tom Simpson in 1965.
Cavendish is a compelling and complex athlete. He drives a McLaren MP4-12C supercar but relishes the quiet Tuscan lifestyle where he can eat antipasti in peace with his family in Quarrata’s Piazza Risorgimento (he also has homes on the Isle of Man and in Essex). He has an incendiary character. He was withdrawn from the Tour de Romandie in 2010 for flicking a V-sign, and has a habit of verbally butchering journalists. Today, however, he is warm and hospitable, insisting I take the most comfortable seat while he perches on a stool. He was invited to lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip (“They were brilliant fun, telling the corgis to shut up.”) and has cycled with Lord Sugar (“He likes his gadgets and knows his stuff.”) but he still trains with humble amateur cyclists on the Isle of Man.
His success can be attributed to a mix of talent, dedication and intelligence. At 5ft 9in and 69kg, Cavendish cannot match his rivals for brute strength alone. “The other sprinters are big and powerful but I have different strengths,” he explains. “The first thing is my leg speed. Most guys sprint at 120 revolutions per minute but I sprint at 130-140: think of it like a smaller engine revving faster. My body is shorter too, so I can lean over the handlebars for a more aerodynamic profile: again, think a smaller engine but in an F1 car. And whereas other guys spike at 1,800 watts [cycling effort is commonly measured in power output] then dip to 1,000, I peak at 1,400-1,500 watts but can hold above 1,200 for the full 10-20 seconds of a sprint.”
He prepares in forensic detail, using Google Maps to analyse road surfaces and examining helicopter television footage to unpick rivals’ tactics. Details matter. At Milan-San Remo in 2009 he raced unflaggingly for 298km before winning the sprint finish by a solitary inch. “Think of all the different variables over those seven hours, and how many millions of things anyone could have done differently to make an inch. That is what sprinting is about.”
To maximise his chances, Cavendish trains his brain speed and focus with Sudoku, Slitherlink and Hanidoku puzzles. He once scored over 140 in an IQ test. “Every rider trains their muscles but few train their brain,” he says. “In a sprint you make 100 decisions a second. What if X goes now and Y goes then? Should I take this gap or that one? You have to be sharp. Over time it becomes instinct. Some riders start screaming. I’m cold, clinical. I swear my heartbeat is 20 or 30 beats slower than theirs.”
Teamwork is essential. “My teammates shield me from the wind to save energy (following another rider reduces air resistance by up to 40 per cent) then deliver me safely for the sprint. I stand on the podium but it’s a team triumph.”
Alongside Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins, Cavendish is a key protagonist in the relentless growth of cycling in Britain. In 2011 he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year with almost 50 per cent of the vote. Cycling is now the third most popular participation sport in the country, with 2.1 million people riding once a week. “It’s beautiful to see people cycling and it was crazy how many fans watched the Tour when it came to Yorkshire last year. To think I have been even a part of that evolution makes me so proud.”
Cavendish crashed out on the first stage of the 2014 Tour — an occupational hazard for sprinters — and suffered an excruciating grade-four rupture of the acromioclavicular joint between his collarbone and shoulder. His dominance had already been shaken by the Slovakian Peter Sagan, who has won the past three points jerseys, and the German Marcel Kittel, who won eight stages in 2013 and 2014. But after winning the points jerseys at the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of California this year, Cavendish — when fit and on form — remains the man to beat. “As soon as I turned pro I was winning straight away so I don’t know what it’s like to not be under pressure. Marcel Kittel took a few years to get to the top, had a cracking year, and now he is a bit stressed this year. I don’t know any different.”
The rages have mellowed, if not disappeared. I have interviewed him half a dozen times and find him refreshingly engaging. Occasionally, you see his jaw clench as the frost settles following an awkward question, but he is effusive, candid and eager to be understood. He sometimes ponders in silence for up to 20 seconds before answering, a habit at first disconcerting (some say terrifying) but actually quite reassuring: he loathes the vacuous platitudes of modern athletes. “I have always been passionate and straight-talking because I love what I do, but I was a kid — university age — when I started racing. Maybe I say too much sometimes but I’m 30 now, not 20. The emotion you see after a race is because I suppress my emotions during the sprint so it all comes out.”
Ask Cavendish where his zeal for cycling stems from and he credits his upbringing on the Isle of Man. “The roads are hard and it’s wet and windy so you have to love cycling,” he says. “It toughens you up.” He started cycling when he was three and was racing by 11. “I had to win. I was the same at school: I had to be top of every spelling test.”
He was also a talented dancer, specialising in Latin disciplines. “I danced since I was eight. My dance partner and I won championships on the Isle of Man and competed in British championships. I loved the competition and discipline but there is teamwork too. I recall missing cycling races when I was 12 because you can’t let your partner down.”
After being selected for the Lottery-funded British Cycling Academy at the age of 18, success swiftly followed. He won his first world title in 2005 and claimed his first stage win at the Tour in 2008. Exciting and unpredictable, he became a global cycling icon. I’ve watched crowds trail him in California. In Belgium he is treated like a Premier League footballer. But Cavendish has a complex relationship with his public status. He craves appreciation, not fame. “I didn’t start cycling to be famous,” he declares. “But ignorance about my sport can be frustrating. I know my success would be more appreciated if I rode for Team Sky [the high-profile British-based team]. When I won the red [points] jersey in the Giro [in 2013], it was in the same year Wiggo [Wiggins] was trying to win the Giro at Team Sky, but once he pulled out everyone forgot about it. I had joined an elite group of five riders who have won the points jersey at all three Grand Tours. It was huge news in every country except the UK. It’s hard to say without sounding bitter but that’s not what I mean. I’m just saying we’re still learning as a cycling nation. It will take a generation before cycling is truly ingrained in our culture.”
He says the business model of professional cycling is ripe for innovation. “Cycling is an insular, old-fashioned industry in which companies basically own the teams. It’s not like in football where Manchester United is the company and sponsors pay to be associated with them. In cycling, the name of the sponsor becomes the name of the team, like Team Sky. They have the biggest annual budget at £20m but that is a pittance compared to other sports. So there is no franchise and teams don’t grow, raise income or invest. It’s all marketed to local audiences. But the potential is huge. When I rode for HTC-Highroad, the sponsors put in a seven-figure sum but got a quarter of a billion dollars in exposure. Technically, we are just moving billboards. The biggest exposure for a team is for a rider to cross the line first with their hands in the air.”
Fortunately for Cavendish and his team, that is an art in which he excels. He admits he would be honoured to break Eddy Merckx’s Tour record one day but reminds me that most riders would be happy with one stage win. “I guess I’m addicted to winning,” he says. “I remember telling my teammate Tony Martin in 2014 that I might sign one more contract then retire. He said: ‘Have a year out and you will miss it.’ And when I missed last year’s Tour through injury, it did reignite something. Instead of looking towards retirement, I feel like I’m just starting the second half of my career.”
The 2015 Tour de France: July 4-26
Photographs: Giacomo Cosua; Getty Images