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Tour de France 2013: Why Mark 'Manx Missile' Cavendish, the best sprinter cycling has seen, is the man they love to hate

After a controversial week in the life of Mark Cavendish, Alasdair Fotheringham considers the nature of his fame

Under normal circumstances, Mark Cavendish racing a medium-distance time trial – as he did on Wednesday in the Tour de France – is one of the rare moments when the Briton is not considered newsworthy. After all, the 28-year-old sprinter neither had any real chance of winning nor – as happens in the mountain stages – was there even a remote possibility that he could finish outside the permitted time.

But on Thursday Cavendish was front-page news. In a virulent personal attack during the time trial the Manxman was dowsed with urine by a so-called “fan”, generally assumed to have been angered by an incident the previous day in which Cavendish had a sideways collision with the Dutch sprinter Tom Veelers, who went flying.

Why does Cavendish provoke such extreme reactions from “fans”?

It’s true a lunatic fringe of spectators very occasionally exploits the sport’s innate vulnerability for stupid, potentially lethal, kicks, like last year when somebody sprinkled tin tacks on a Pyrenean descent, provoking widespread punctures. But  direct, personal attacks like Wednesday’s on Cavendish thankfully tend to be even rarer. Yet whoever it was, they chose their occasion well: in time trials, barring the big contenders, riders are usually alone, accompanied by a single police outrider and following team vehicle and the order of their racing the route is previously published.

But why Cavendish? Perhaps the thing about him is that Cavendish’s level of fame is far greater than that of almost any other bike rider. Certainly, anything he does gets put under a media magnifying glass to a degree that few other riders experience. And that’s not new, either.

“There’s Mark, Lance [Armstrong] and [Alberto] Contador: they’re the three best-known, most charismatic riders out there,” one top British pro rider told me back in 2009.

Since then Sir Bradley Wiggins’ spiky, articulate nature and huge achievements have combined to put him in the same league of fame. But in the 2013 Tour, Wiggins is missing, Armstrong’s fate needs no further discussion and Contador has yet to return to his pre-doping-suspension level of racing.

Cavendish, meanwhile, has been constantly high-profile since his Tour breakthrough in 2008, when he took four stages, well before Sky appeared in 2010 or Wiggins’ Tour win in  2012. And as cycling’s greatest ever sprinter, his status can only continue to grow.

“The more successful you are the bigger the target there is on your back,” points out Lance Armstrong’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu, now a professional cycling commentator and sports director of the Five Hour Energy cycling team. “I remember the scrums outside the team buses, people just wanting to touch Lance, get his autograph. And Cavendish’s mass appeal is partly because he has won so much.”

But, as Andreu says, there is also Cavendish’s personality – larger than life, ultra-motivated and outspoken – is a combination which may be annoying to some but which never leaves anybody indifferent.

“If he has to bunny-hop across a roundabout to win, say, he’ll do it. He’s that driven,” Andreu points out. He believes that the Veelers incident was a case in point. “Personally, I  believe it was Cav’s fault [that Veelers crashed], but that’s sprinting. Things like that happen all the time in bunch sprints.

“Cavendish’s eyes were on [German rival André] Greipel’s wheel; he was determined to get there. I don’t think it [the crash] was intentional at all. Cavendish gets caught up in the fight and then he does everything he can to get to the line. But that’s what makes him a good sprinter.”

It’s ironic, Andreu believes, that “what people praise him for is also what they condemn him for”.

David Millar, writing in L’Equipe, put Cavendish’s situation into perfectly into context: “He’s a controversial personality, but I think that’s what happens to stars, be it in sport or politics – you can’t be indifferent to them and they create extreme reactions.

“In Mark’s case, they either love him or hate him. Some people love to hate him. But overall I think a majority of people like him.

 “I’ve known him for a long time; he’s always wanted to be famous. The price to pay for that is your slightest mistake gets huge exposure.”

Hence, too, the decision of the organisers of the Boxmeer Criterium in the Netherlands, a race held immediately after the Tour, to cash in on the situation and announce they had struck Cavendish off their list of possible participants, allegedly because of the Veelers incident. It was the perfect opportunity to create a publicity storm without actually having ever signed Cavendish or, some say, even having the money to do so.

Raymond Kerckhoffs, a leading Dutch cycling journalist at De Telegraaf, is adamant there is absolutely no “anti-Cavendish feeling” in the Netherlands. Quite the opposite.

“Veelers doesn’t have a problem with it [the crash] now” – although he was initially critical of Cavendish – “the jury didn’t do anything, and other sprinters, like [former triple green jersey winner] Robbie McEwen, don’t have a problem with it either,” Kerckhoffs said. “Cavendish has a name and a reputation for taking risks, and if he loses he’s not the easiest person on the planet to deal with, but a lot of people respect how he sprints, how fast he is. For me, he’s a legend. Aged 28 and 25 Tour stage sprints.”

Hence, the attack on Cavendish has its own depressing logic. “I don’t think anybody else having those sort of problems, or that sort of crash, would have provoked such a dramatic reaction,” says Andreu. “Fans throwing urine like that is despicable, horrible.

“Cavendish is an impressive fast sprinter. He has a type-A personality, with the fire and the drive. But anything he says or does, people look at it and write about it. And I can’t think of anybody since Lance who’s been like that.

“Cavendish has a toothache and it’s ‘Oh my god, is he ever going to come back?’ Anybody else, they wouldn’t care about it. But if you’re a star, it’s impossible to please everyone.”

As Cavendish found out on Wednesday in the most unpleasant of ways.