Men's road race: Famous five on a mission
This is it. Years of planning, a career mapped in sweat and fatigue, of mad effort and sacrifice, has brought Mark Cavendish to the point of Olympic gold on the streets of London. The scale and import of what he might achieve this afternoon, winning for Britain and himself the first gold of the 30th Olympiad is way too big an idea for him to get his head around. It is for the likes of us to classify and order achievements. For Cavendish the challenge reduces simply to its material parts, when to push, when to recover, when to attack. Of course, the aim is to win. And to win here would represent a serious peak, just don't ask him to dwell on the significance of it.
"I'm incredibly proud to be British and to be part of this Olympic team at our home Games in London. I want to make the most of this opportunity. I want to try to win a medal, preferably gold. It doesn't matter whether it's the first or last. But when you pause and start to look at what you have done, then you are not moving forward. That would stop progression. I love this sport. I love the history of it. I want to be part of that history. But you are not going to do that by admiring what you have done. When I retire I have the rest of my life to celebrate my journey. I have not allowed myself to think about coming into The Mall on Saturday. I don't do that. The Champs-Elysées maybe, anything else, no."
There is about Cavendish and the elite outriders at his side today, led by Tour de France one and two Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, an intensity and commitment that makes you want to fling a leg over a saddle and start pedalling. The first hint of discomfort would do for most of us. Has done for us. Not for these carbon-fibre warriors, who pedal themselves to the point of failure, then kick on beyond endurance. Cavendish is not a big man. Sat at the head of a long table in a conference room at the team's Foxhills Golf Club headquarters, his pared-down dimensions suggest a sense of vulnerability. Then he speaks.
The certainty and conviction of his words demonstrate how deeply he cares about this sport. Cavendish is easily grouped in that category labelled "winners". In another walk of life, individuals exhibiting the same kind of pathological, unnerving desire to win might be referred to a doctor. He is manifestly in the right company today. The confidence among the group is more than macho posturing. It is rooted in numbers, quantifiable performance data and, of course, the ultimate arbiter, medals.
That is why performance director Dave Brailsford has not bothered to conceal a strategy that starts and ends with Cavendish on pole. "Cav is a born winner. Who better to step up to the mark? He is one of the best in the world at what he does. We have had a look at this course, how you can model the speed and power-to-weight ratios etc. Off the back of that we set some goals and targets around Mark's performance. He has worked extremely hard to get himself in shape. Coming here last Sunday was a great move. They have kept their race heads on. They are in race mode."
Brailsford argues the case for each member of the five-man squad to receive a medal. Cavendish accepts that without Wiggins, Froome, David Millar and Ian Stannard working on his behalf, gold would not be possible. "If I did not have a team here there is no way I could say I could get over Box Hill nine times alone. Even with four guys around me there is no way I could get through it unscathed. I need four of the strongest bike riders in the world to do that. Luckily, I have that."
Cavendish estimates that he has been around the Box Hill loop in Surrey at least 20 times. Only once, at the Milan-San Remo three years ago, has he spent so much time nailing the detail of a race. The role of Millar as team leader on the road assumes greater importance in Brailsford's strategic plan since there is no radio communication permitted. Cavendish is grateful for the Scot's input. "David is able to stay calm and analyse situations. He is not scared to call shots. He is not hesitant. And he is strong and committed. He knows how to ride for a sprinter and a climber on all types of terrain. Every decision you have to make is using energy, every form of mental stress is as detrimental as physical stress. To have that taken away from you can save a lot of energy."
The portents are almost too good. Never has a British cycling team hit the road at an Olympic Games as well prepared as this. The profile of the Tour de France and the British colonisation of the race this year has elevated this group to megastar status. Wiggins is even setting fashion trends with his modish flourishes and super, soaraway sideburns. Cavendish has the more prosaic fame accelerator, the glamour-model girlfriend. None of this is allowed to get in the way. You could light fires with the focus this group brings to winning gold.
The final word goes to Cavendish: "It would be easy to get emotional about it. It's nerve-racking. But we are trained to deal with that. You have to put it to bed, all the emotion. As unromantic as it sounds we have a process to adhere to. If we commit to that process 100 per cent, we know we have the best chance of winning."
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