Tour de France: Cavendish's rapid takeover fuelled by burning desire to beat the world

Winner of 19 Tour stages in four years and green jersey favourite 'needs hostility to work', writes Alasdair Fotheringham

A few years ago when Mark Cavendish began racking up the wins that have seen him become – together with Alberto Contador – the best-known rider in the sport, a longstanding race official said to him: "Cav, when you're a big star, don't forget me."

Cavendish's response? "I'm a big star now."

That answer may sound a shade arrogant, but it also reveals why Cavendish has become the Tour's No 1 sprinter – of his generation, easily, and perhaps of all time.

At root is something as simple and powerful as a burning conviction that he would be able to get there, despite all the odds.

These were considerable at times, not least because according to one of his former coaches at British Cycling, Simon Jones, and again with his first team doctor as a professional in 2007 at T-Mobile, Cavendish's failure to "hit the numbers" physiologically meant that it was doubtful he could make it in cycling's top ranks.

Unless, of course, regardless of Cavendish's "munchkin legs" (as he himself calls them) and short, stocky top half, you could find lurking in his psyche an almost frightening determination to get to the top of his game.

Fast forward four and a bit years and Cavendish is now so far ahead of the rest of the fast men that he even draws tributes from the legendary sprinter Mario Cipollini, whose legacy in terms of flamboyance and shooting his mouth off the Briton has, to a certain extent, inherited.

"Cavendish is 100 times better than me," Cipollini told the French sports daily L'Equipe recently. "In eight pedal strokes, he hits his top speed. On top of that, when it comes to the sport Mark is enthusiasm personified."

The HTC-Highroad sprinter does seem to specialise in run-ins with his rivals and the media: when asked after taking his 19th Tour de France stage win on Sunday if it had been windy, he archly replied that there was a lot more wind in the press room.

Just this year alone, there have been spats over allegations of receiving assistance from team cars on climbs (ferociously denied, with corroboration from the Tour organisers), accusations of being fat (also denied), a spat with the French sprinter Romain Feillu, and his accusations, in the Giro d'Italia, that he was not favoured by officials. Cavendish even said: "If I so much as fart, I seem to get disqualified."

As for that bad-boy persona, Cavendish seems to revel in it. Accused by a tweeter of not being a team player when he was recently awarded an MBE, Cav tweeted back, "Yeah, and I drown kittens."

But as Cipollini points out, Cavendish is the "man to beat, so logically he's the one who finds himself constantly in the sights of both his enemies on the bike and race officials. Personally, though, I've never seen him do a disloyal or incorrect manoeuvre on the bike, with the possible exception of once at the Tour de Suisse in 2010."

Possibly Cavendish's issue with the media is that fighting criticism in the press is a battle he cannot ever know he has won – which for someone who "absolutely loathes losing" must be difficult, particularly for a rider who wins so often.

The pure data barely do it justice: 70 career wins on the road (and on the track, let's not forget, a 2005 world championships gold medal in the Madison when sent in as a last-minute replacement), 29 Grand Tour wins and 19 stages in the Tour de France alone.

Personal motivation apart, there are a host of reasons why Cavendish has become the sport's top sprinter.

There is his team's support for him in his numerous scrapes, honed to perfection after four years of Tour de France success. There is the manic attention to detail, to the point where he will read the Tour route book into the small hours to memorise the smallest change in a finish. And, above all, there is a passion for proving his critics – like Jones, later removed from British Cycling for reasons unknown – very wrong indeed.

"Cav needs hostility to work," points out the HTC-Highroad director Allan Peiper, "he needs to think there's a plot out there, constantly cries out that life is unfair.

"He's the best of all the sprinters by far that I've known, but he's also a good guy, fragile and emotional. Last year just before the start of the Champs Elysées stage, I found him crying, alone, at the back of the bus."

If Cavendish converts his hatred of being criticised into a means of goading himself to greater and greater performances, that is typical of his willingness to use all the weapons he can: for example, physically, even Cavendish's short build has been transformed into a huge advantage.

Being smaller, he creates far less wind resistance than gangly rivals such as Tyler Farrar, and, that, in turn, means a few more fractions of centimetres gained with each pedal stroke in each bunch sprint.

Most of all, though, what makes Cavendish different from the rest is the unbridled passion which he has for the sport. On a personal note, I can remember how, back in the Tour of Catalonia in 2007, he won one stage after clambering over a number of bodies and fallen bikes in a crash, including one rider who was turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

He was so determined to explain what had happened to the local journalists – who were utterly bemused by his Scouse accent and the flood of words about his winning effort – that he moved out from behind the winner's press conference table and started acting out the final kilometres for them, complete with the body moves, gestures and even what he shouted at other riders to get them out of the way. It was hilarious, but also moving.

That, too, was the first day that Cavendish met the Tour de France general director, Christian Prudhomme, who as the race's guest of honour presented the stage trophies.

Tellingly, though, Cavendish had no idea who Prudhomme was – a sign of just how far he had come in so little time. These days, however, Prudhomme needs no introduction, and neither does Cavendish.

How Cav went green

* Stage three: Gets sideswiped into the barriers but still finished fifth.

* Stage five: Takes his first win of this year's race at Cap Frehel.

* Stage seven: Makes history repeat itself by triumphing in Chateauroux, the town where he took his first Tour stage back in 2008.

* Stage 10: Narrowly beaten by André Greipel, his longstanding rival, but still finishes second

* Stage 11: Bounces back next day to claim his third victory and take the green jersey for the first time since stage 12 of the 2009 Tour.

* Stage 15: Now 'almost unbeatable' in a sprint finish, Cavendish claims fourth stage win, his 19th in all over just four years on the Tour.

* Green jersey standings

1 Mark Cavendish (GB) 319 points

2 Jose Joaquin Rojas (Sp) 282 pts

3 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) 248 pts

4 Thor Hushovd (Nor) 192 pts