Veering off the accepted line has become a dangerously regular occurrence for Mark Cavendish.
Last month an abrupt change of course sparked a spectacular crash in the Tour of Switzerland and led to fellow riders staging an anti-Cavendish protest. In April he caused another furore with a two-fingered gesture after winning a stage of the Tour de Romandie. And, most damaging of all, in last year's Tour de France he was penalised for coming off his line in a struggle with Thor Hushovd. It cost him the green jersey.
It went instead to Hushovd and it was the Norwegian who had complained about Cavendish's riding as they hurtled towards the finish line of stage 14 in Besancon. "That was the defining moment," says Cavendish. "I always want to win but I always want to win the correct way. If people don't want to do that, that's up to them, but it is not the way I want to do it."
It is not only in the saddle that the 25-year-old from the Isle of Man has courted controversy. Here is a man who speaks first and then considers the consequences. It actually makes for a rare, refreshing – and entertaining – presence in the carefully cultivated and controlled world of professional sport. "I hope Thor can sleep at night," was his prompt judgement on the outcome of his rival's complaint. Later, after winning the Tour's final stage on the Champs-Elysées, he announced himself "embarrassed" with his initial reaction. Hushovd, Cavendish decided, was a "deserved" winner of the green jersey.
"Sometimes I don't think of the consequences," says Cavendish. He is chewing hurriedly on a chocolate croissant ("I missed breakfast") in an Italian restaurant in Soho during a flying visit before returning to the Continent to complete preparations for the Tour, which begins in Rotterdam today. It is not long before conversation switches to the infamous V-sign.
"It is hard to explain," he says. "I have the ability to turn off all emotion when I race but that split second when it finishes it all comes out. It can be a lethal tool. Sometimes I look at things differently to people and don't see what they see. It was not intended to be vulgar, if I had intended it to be vulgar I would have stuck one finger up. The two-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, when they caught the archers and cut their two fingers off. It was intended to say: you can attack me, but I've still got my fingers – you can't catch me. That's what I meant, anyway. It was an insult but not a vulgar one. I don't think about how other people see it. Sometimes I get it wrong. How I'm perceived is different to what I am. Nobody wants to be perceived as an arsehole but if you give them fuel..."
He is into his stride now. "If you see me at home, I'm not this guy full of emotion. I'm a professional sportsman in the public eye – they take that as your character. If anybody is so shallow to take my personality from 30 seconds at the end of a bike ride... I'm portrayed differently to how I am – maybe that's my fault, but as long as the people I care about know who I am and I have their confidence, trust and love. That's what matters. I love this sport, I love winning and I love my life, but negative things are always going to hurt. A lot of things are opinion-based, not fact-based, these days. If enough people say two plus two is five on the internet then it is."
Some facts, then: no Briton has won as many Tour stages as the 10 Cavendish has to his name, six earned last year, four in 2008. No Briton has ever won the green jersey. And if Cavendish is to break new ground then he will have to do so off the back of his "hardest season".
"It has always been about moving up the ladder before but now you are near the top it's even harder," he says. "Mentally, I have taken a bit of a knock this year but physically I feel fresh. I have had my problems but everything is fine now. Everything has been sacrificed for the Tour."
Those mental knocks have been tough; splitting from his girlfriend, his brother being imprisoned for drug offences and watching Jonny Bellis, a close friend, fight for his life after a scooter accident. There have been physical setbacks too. In December he had corrective surgery on his teeth and then ignored doctor's orders and got back on his bike. His gums became infected, he fell ill and it took a dent out of his training schedule.
When racing began in earnest the victories did not come as readily as last season. "Nobody is invincible," he says and shrugs. "You are not going to races just to win, win, win. I'm concentrating on the Tour. I had a bad winter but the last months have made up for the problems."
But last month came a major problem. He was blamed for the Swiss pile-up that took Heinrich Haussler, a team-mate of Hushovd, out of the race. Cavendish too was injured, as well as fined and penalised. He pulled out the following day. "I opened my line but I did not switch. I'm not trying to say that I'm faultless but I don't believe I was the only one at fault." And the protest? "It wasn't the whole peloton. It was [Haussler's] Cervelo [team] and about three other riders who said, 'We want to protest, and we're not going to start the race until Cavendish goes home'.
"The rest of the peloton said, 'You're being stupid, we're going to race.' And so the guys who wanted to protest changed their tune and protested for two minutes. I don't know why. The majority of the peloton care about sport, not politics: they [the protesters] do not care about sport. Sometimes it infuriates me but I stayed quiet."
His HTC-Columbia team has been picked for this Tour with one goal. "The big aim is the green," he says. "It should have come last year. I couldn't set it as a goal before but now I know I can do it." He has been on recces to the Alps – "not enjoyable"– and to take in the 13km of cobbles on stage three from Arenberg to Porte du Hainaut – "difficult" – to ensure his readiness. In the past he has spoken of the torture of the Tour, but on the eve of the race it is all about anticipation.
"There's a good race for the yellow, the green ... it's going to be an exciting Tour de France." And Cavendish seems certain to be at its heart, teetering as ever on that fine line. "I've strong morals and strong principles. I want to win races by being the very best on sporting grounds."
Race for the Yellow Jersey
Alberto Contador, Spain
The winner of four major Tours including last year's Tour de France, the 27-year-old from Madrid starts the race head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Back-up from his team and early stages on unfavourable terrain – cobbles – are, on paper, his only weak points.
Lance Armstrong, United States
"Big Tex" rides his last Tour at the head of a formidable RadioShack squad. Third last year, the seven-times winner is in great shape, and even though he's 38 – long in the tooth for the Tour game – Contador believes Armstrong remains a major threat.
Andy Schleck, Luxembourg
Second last year and a powerful all-round challenger, Schleck and brother Frank – his team-mate in the Saxo Bank squad – will try to make life tough for Contador in the mountains.
Cadel Evans, Australia
"Cuddles", as he is nicknamed, is a double runner-up in the Tour and the reigning World road race champion. Once viewed as overly conservative, he has recently hit on a vein of aggressive riding that could pay off big-time.
Bradley Wiggins, Britain
Britain's best hope for the podium since Robert Millar in the 1980s. Wiggins' surprise fourth place in Paris last year has catapulted the Londoner into overall contention. Backed by new British team, Sky.
Denis Menchov, Russia
Twice a winner of the Tour of Spain and the winner of the Giro d'Italia in 2009, the gloomy-faced Rabobank leader has always come a cropper in the Tour de France. However, following a quiet build-up to July, the inside word is Russia's top cyclist is in stunning form.
Race for the Green Jersey
Mark Cavendish, Britain
Overwhelming favourite, whose team is dedicated to getting him in green in Paris. Put doubts about a difficult early season behind him yesterday. Cavendish's first chance to get ahead comes in tomorrow's stage to Brussels.
Alberto Contador, Spain
In one of the most mountainous Tours of recent years, overall contenders may pick up enough points in the Alps and Pyrenees to challenge for green. As the Tour's best climber, Contador is a distant, but real, threat to Cavendish.
Thor Hushovd, Norway
Last year's winner of the points jersey – after Cavendish was eliminated by an unfair disqualification. He is backed by a strong team featuring two Britons, Jeremy Hunt and Dan Lloyd.
Oscar Freire, Spain
Three-times world champion and the Tour's points jersey winner in 2008. Cavendish says the veteran is "clever enough to beat me in at least one sprint each year". Hushovd and the American Tyler Farrar are the only other riders of whom Cavendish speaks so highly.
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