Cycling: Mad Manx Cavendish settles scores

The world's greatest sprinter lets rip at sloppy journalists and jealous rivals
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The Independent Online

By the time you read next week's edition of The Independent on Sunday, thanks to the time difference in Australia, the World Road Race will be over and a Briton could be donning the champion's jersey for the first time in 35 years.

"All this month my legs have felt hard, like they're made of steel," says Mark Cavendish as he stirs the ice in his coffee, just a few days before capturing the points jersey in the Tour of Spain. "It's like last year before I won Milan-San Remo; you just know when you've got good form, you don't do your legs any muscle damage with a hard ride, you can feel them getting stronger. And that's what's happening now."

As for the Worlds in Melbourne, Cavendish is realistic that with 3,000 metres of climbing, the outcome may not be decided by his speciality, a bunch sprint. "I'm not going into it thinking 'I'm going to win this'... but there's a chance."

As for those rivals who say the Manxman simply cannot climb well enough, the 25-year-old all but sniffs in disagreement. "People forget a lot of things. I'll win what I aim to win," he says, while recognising that with just two riders for support it will not be a disaster if he does not finish on top Down Under.

Although he has already donned the rainbow jersey of world champion on the track twice, Cavendish will not be lacking motivation. "The Worlds has always been a big thing for me. When I was at the Academy, I said to Rod [Ellingworth, the road coach] that I want to be world champion. Even after taking the track championships, the rainbow jersey you get doesn't have solid bands, like the one you get in the world [road] championships. I said to Rod, at least once in my life, I want those solid bands. I need them."

But if his Worlds dream hasn't changed since his amateur days, this year there has been a change, of sorts. Cavendish is famous for saying what he thinks without holding back, but in the Tour de France he avoided any verbal fireworks.

"It's all been about not giving people the fuel, so they can't criticise me, it's not worth it," he says. "The whole Tour, I said to myself 'I'll just do the usual bland staff, not talk, answer every question with I'm happy to be here'."

Cavendish claims some journalists regularly take his comments out of context and, as a regular trawler of the worldwide web, he gets very annoyed when he reads any misleading articles.

Here, at least, he lets rip: "If I've done something bad, and I get the shit for it, I don't care, it's when it's an ill-informed ignoramus who writes complete shit, someone who is so far off the truth it's not a fact, it's an opinion, that's what gets me.

"In my press conference in January I said that 2010 was all about the second half of the season [the Tours of France and Spain and the Worlds]. And there were still journalists who asked: 'Is Mark Cavendish in meltdown this spring?' "

He cites one particular run-in with a reporter: "In 2010 on the Champs Elysées stage, [this journalist] says someone has accused me of pulling [getting illegal tows] on cars.

"Are you fucking kidding me? If I go back, let alone if I'm dropped, I have two race officials, TV cameras, an ice-cream van and a marching band following me. How the fuck am I going to hold on to a car?

"[The journalist] comes out with that. How is that going to sell more newspapers? It certainly doesn't make him look like a good journalist, it makes him look like a cock, he's coming to try and ruin a sport. Go home and fucking write for a trashy magazine if you want to do that shit."

Cavendish's success rate is such that he is also coming across some increasingly nefarious attempts to lay him low in sprints. At least one team, he tells The Independent On Sunday, are trying to get him to lose by systematically lodging protests.

"They openly complain about every single thing and they openly admit it," he says. "I've spoken to guys in that team and say 'why do you do it?' and they said 'we've got to find a way to beat you'. That's not fair, and that's not sporting."

He says one particular team manager protests at Cavendish's sprints because he "tries to fuck with me at every possible opportunity, which is ironic considering he was a sprinter and I actually looked up to him. But now I have no respect for him".

The situation has got so bad, Cavendish says, that it's affecting the way he sprints. He cites one stage in the Tour of Spain where he failed to ride across the road to try and drop a rival shadowing him because he feared he would be penalised. "I'm terrified of doing anything now," he says. "I can't make a move like that and it puts me at a disadvantage."

Certainly race officials are not slow to react to any unusual manoeuvre by the British rider. When Cavendish "jumped" across the finish line to celebrate a win in Spain – an unusual celebration that put nobody at risk except himself – he nonetheless received a warning. Some sources said he had even risked an exclusion.

How will this all affect him at the Worlds? He shrugs his shoulders. "It's just how it is. I've never protested like that because I want to win sportingly and I always have done up to now."

Such is Cavendish's success that he has repeatedly been linked with the British Team Sky for 2011. But the HTC-Columbia rider says it's not happening. "There are rumours now, and there were rumours last year, but the thing is I'm not somebody who needs to go somewhere because of their nationality. Lots of Italian riders sign with Italian squads because they're Italian, French riders in French teams, British riders in British teams. I go wherever the best place is for me to be. Right now I like where I am and I'm here [at HTC] next year."

So no change there then, and whether Cavendish has really changed is certainly open to debate. But we will soon find out whether he is going to spend 2011 wearing a jersey with the rainbow stripes of world road champion for the first time.