Mark Cavendish: Manic Manxman on the road to cycling immortality

Isle of Man's favourite son vents his anger at Wiggins over Olympics flop, talks up his chances of winning the green jersey in the 2009 Tour de France, and explains why a donkey called Bernard will be mowing his lawn. Alasdair Fotheringham meets... Mark Cavendish
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You can almost guarantee it. Whenever a British sports personality makes it to the big time, their next address is a flat in Monaco or a plush chalet in Switzerland.

Not so Mark Cavendish, Britain's leading male road-racing cyclist. He is sticking to his native Isle of Man. Even after winning four stages of the Tour de France, his only concession to sporting glory – and a hugely increased market value – has been the purchase of a converted farmhouse on a wild and windy hillside north of Douglas.

If his pay has gone up in the past couple of years, that is hardly surprising. Appropriately enough for a sprinter, Cavendish's rise to domination of his own speciality could not have been more meteoric, with no other male rider clinching as many wins as the Manxman in 2008: 17.

This jawdropping total included four searing sprint stage wins in the Tour, by far the best haul of any Briton. In fact Cav, as he is known, is well on course to becoming the country's greatest-ever male road-race pro, and he is still only 23.

Back home near Douglas, there are surprisingly few trappings of success: the only trophy on display is from the Scheldeprijs, the Belgian one-day race in which he took his first victory as a pro. Outside, there is no sports car or huge swimming pool, although Cavendish will soon be splashing out on – wait for it – a donkey to keep the grass down (it will be named Bernard after his German team worker Bernie Eisel, whose surname means donkey).

Buying a live lawn-mower is hardlya pretentious display of financial power, but it sums up Cavendish. He is beguilingly direct about everything he does, from giving opinions to winning bike races, but it is not for show. As he puts it: "Other people have a big mouth just to be famous. I just happen to have a big mouth. I could have gone to Monaco, it was an option, but I wanted to stay here. It's where I know what I am, who I am."

Many new fans to the sport would say Britain's biggest wave of two-wheeled triumph was in Beijing in August, but Cavendish is quick to name the Olympics as the low point of his season. He took part in one track event, the madison, partnered by Bradley Wiggins, who was exhausted after winning in the individual and team pursuits. The two failed to make an impact and Cavendish was the only rider in the GB track team to go home without a medal. And he doesn't feel he was to blame.

"Because Bradley's so good, he never has the feeling of being on the back foot," Cavendish says. "And when he's on the back foot [like at Beijing], he doesn't know what to do and he starts panicking. I was in the form of my life. And Bradley, even when he's tired, is one of the best guys on the track. He should be, anyway. Then we got to halfway through the race and I was like, 'What is going on, what is going on?' It was a horrible feeling, going round and round and there was nothing I could do."

This year Cavendish left cycling's biggest race, the Tour, before the end to rest up for the Olympics – a decision that still rankles. "People would ask me when I was going to quit and I wouldn't say I'm going to finish on any particular day out of respect for it. It's just I love the sport too much to do that. Cycling has given me what I am, so I can never take it for granted."

Cavendish never lacks for confidence, even when he is going badly. "I'm always on the back foot. It's when I'm on the front foot I have problems. I get too cocky, start pissing about."

As for 2009, he will be focusingsolely on the road. His main target is winning the green jersey for being the Tour's points-winner, but he has several different objectives – from riding Milan-San Remo, the so-called sprinters' Classic, to winning short prologues to tackling the infamous Paris-Roubaix for the first time.

Expectations will be high, given that Cavendish has made sprinting look so easy. But in fact it is the most ferociously complex way to win in cycling, because there are no second chances.

"You have to assume all these split-second decisions, but you can't make a decision on whether it's right or wrong, it's just instinct. It's going to have to be right. Maybe, if it is right, then a better decision appears after that, and a better one after that, and you keep doing that till you win."

His elephantine memory for previous sprints, as well as his habit of spending an hour each night analysing every segment of the following day's finish, are other keys to his success. "I couldn't just take you through wins earlier this season, I could take you through, metre by metre, a stage I won in the Tour of Berlin as an amateur. And I like to watch my stage wins afterwards. I'm obsessive," he admits. "I can accept failure if it happens because of bad luck, but to miss out on something when I could have won, it eats me alive."

He is harshly self-critical, saying that at Ghent-Wevelgem this year, one of the toughest sprint Classics: "I messed up. I sat too far back in the bunch. Since that day I don't just rely on my strength. Now I win from the front, and by a heck of a lot more."

Cavendish would be a natural leader in any squad, and the new British team for the 2010 Tour, backed by the British Cycling Federation, have made no secret that they want to sign him. But he will not come easily. "There's no reason for me to leave my team, GB or no GB, especially after seeing how the Tour sprints went this year and how hard they worked for me.

"If I don't have a team backing me, then I've got a good chance of winning. If I have a team working for me, then there's no chance of me losing. Simple as that."

He is also looking beyond the near future. Long term, he plans to imitate the Irish great Sean Kelly and metamorphose from sprinter to all-rounder."You've got to keep setting targets, and that's how I've been with everything, not just bike racing. If I want to achieve something I'll achieve it. I always say, I never have dreams, I have targets."

Cavendish is a man whose passion for cycling borders on the manic. It helped him to overcome the disastrous news when – barely a month after he had turned professional – his team doctors analysed his results from a training test and said he could never make it. In Cavendish's first race, he finished second.

"I have a weird habit of proving people wrong," he says with a grin, "and if I have a point to prove, I'll be six times stronger." So much so, in fact, that Cavendish is firmly on the fast track to becoming one of thegreatest sprinters in cycling history.

Alasdair Fotheringham also writes for

Life and times

Name: Mark Cavendish.

Born: 21 May 1985, Isle of Man.

Early life: Worked in a bank for two years to fund his amateur career. Turned full-time pro in 2007 with T-Mobile, the team now sponsored by Team Columbia.

Career: Took 11 wins in his first year as a pro, including the Scheldeprijs, one of Belgium's biggest Classics, the prologue of the Tour of Britain, a stage in the Tour of Denmark, and two stages in the Tour of Catalonia. In 2008, won the madison at the World Track Championships in Manchester with Bradley Wiggins, then a staggering 17 races on the road, including the Scheldeprijs, two stages of the Tour of Italy, the prologue of the Tour of Romandie and four stages of the Tour de France. Also won the first three stages of the Tour of Ireland and three in the Tour of Missouri.

Next year: Gunning to become Britain's first winner of the green jersey (points competition) in the Tour de France. Will tackle major Classics in the spring, including Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.

Fascinating facts: A former ballroom dancer, Cavendish plays speed chess in his spare time. Lives with his fiancée, Melissa, on the Isle of Man. The race he would most like to win is the Tour of Flanders – Belgium's toughest Classic.