Cavendish: 'Rough diamond' born with the drive to sparkle

He is a 'one-off' says his national coach and could become an all-time great

The most obvious reason why Mark Cavendish makes such an appropriate BBC Sports Personality Of The Year is that no other male Briton has ever achieved so much in a single season of road-racing. As Cav himself would put it in other contexts, "it's simple as".

Victory in the world road-race championship alone, the most unpredictable, mentally taxing and strategically complicated of all cycling's one-day events, would have been enough to make Cavendish a prime candidate. So too would victory in the Tour de France's green points jersey for best sprinter, the first ever for a British rider.

Yet there's more: his total of five stage wins in a single Tour de France has only ever been outstripped by one British performance – Cavendish himself in 2009.

"He's not just the most outstanding rider of his generation – he's one of the most outstanding of all time now. He's a one-off," British Cycling's team principal, Dave Brailsford, told The Independent yesterday. "Not only is he one of Britain's top sports stars internationally, he's got the personality to go with it,".

"I remember the first time I ever met him [in 2002], he turned up at the velodrome in his little hatchback Nova and, when I asked him what he wanted to do in his career, he told me he was going to be the fastest man in the world."

"At the time he was a bit of a rough diamond, but he's done exactly what he said he would do, which is unbelievable. And for cycling to have won Sports Personality of the Year twice in four years [Sir Chris Hoy won in 2008] really reflects how the sport is going forward."

It is not just British records that Cavendish has smashed this year. No other pro has ever taken three victories on the Champs-Elysées, the Tour's yearly finale so prestigious that it is dubbed the sprinters' "world championship". Cavendish not only did that, he won it three times in a row.

"He's put together a palmares in a short time that most pros would dream of in an entire career. He deserves every accolade he gets." Brailsford added. "When somebody is such a prolific winner, it's not just talent. Cavendish does think and plan his performances, and that was never more evident than at this year's world championship, when he went over and and over and over that course."

"He planned it meticulously, he left nothing to chance and with all greats, everybody expected him to do the business and he rose to the occasion."

The list goes on, to the point where, for one already Britain's most successful road cyclist and the greatest sprinter of his generation, there is every chance Cavendish will become cycling's greatest sprinter ever.

Just one example: only one sprinter in the history of the sport has taken more Tour de France stages – the French legend of the 1950s and 1960s André Darrigade has 22 to Cavendish's 20. It would only be surprising, now, if that record does not fall next July. Even all-time great Eddy Merckx's seemingly unreachable record of 34 Tour stages is no longer an unreasonable target.

What lies underneath such towering achievements is a hugely impressive level of consistency – winning a minimum of four stages in every Tour for the last four years. In the last decade only the way Lance Armstrong racked up seven straight Tours overshadows that record.

Statistics as impressive as these, though, could only ever be only one reason why Cavendish strikes a chord with so many fans. Another is his all-out passion for his sport, so infectious and inspiring his seven British team-mates sacrificed any chances they might have had of a medal in the world championship to ensure his victory – with no financial reward, either.

There can be no doubting its authenticity. As early as 2007, the first time I interviewed him and asked the rather trite question of whether he was enjoying life as a first-year pro as he thought he would, Cavendish said "I'm absolutely loving it. It's too hard not to.

"I was already thinking the other week I would dread the day I retire because I would miss it so much. I love it. The team always take the mick out of me because I'm always going around saying, 'I fucking love it'."

Regularly written off in his early days as having the "wrong" physique for a pro – "the individuals who have questioned me over the years haven't so much misunderstood my capacities as they've misunderstood cycling," was his response – Cavendish, who can be outspoken, has never let that lack of faith in his potential get in the way of his ambitions .

As early as 2007, he was already talking about winning the world championship and the Tour's green jersey; they were, he told me, "dreams I'd love to fulfil". And with those now safely in his saddlebag, capturing Britain's first Olympic gold next summer is a challenge which – knowing Cavendish – the 26 year-old Manxman will positively relish every pedalstroke it takes him to achieve.

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