Mark Cavendish: Is Olympic gold at end of the rainbow?
Last year he won the World Champion's multicoloured jersey. In 2012 his aim is just one colour in London. He tells Alasdair Fotheringham how he aims to use the Tour to achieve it
Mark Cavendish is a perfectionist. This probably explains his elephant-like memory ("I can remember every detail, metre by metre, of a stage I won in a Tour of Berlin as an amateur" he once told me – four years after the event) and his hatred of failure ("I can accept losing because of bad luck, but to miss out on something I should have won, it destroys me.")
But even Cavendish admits that in London 2012 he and his four GB team-mates in the Olympic road race – in which Cavendish could take Britain's first gold medal – will have to be taking that perfectionist "fault" of his to new extremes.
"There's no room for even one mistake on that course," he says, "no way back at all. And with just five guys in our team, there will be no way we can control it. It won't be a big bunch sprint. But we'll try and get me on the front, and see what happens."
We are talking in Doha, Qatar, where last week he completed the country's prestigious six-day, early-season stage race with a booty of two wins for his new team, Sky, a sixth place overall and a nasty high-speed last-day crash – with, fortunately, no long-term physical consequences.
With Qatar's combination of desert, camels and gleaming skyscrapers as a backdrop, in some ways the Olympics could not feel further away. And, as Cavendish explains, within his sport the Games are not considered as prestigious as say, the rainbow bands of reigning road-race world champion he now wears every time he throws his leg over a saddle. But that, to him, is irrelevant.
"In terms of cycling, it's not a big deal," he says. "Professionally it won't do anything for me at all. But why it's so important to me is the fact that I'm patriotic, it's the Olympic Games in London, in terms of being a British citizen, pulling on the jersey that represents the flag that I was born under, the people I was born with. That's what matters.
"I've got that [world champion's] jersey, I'll have those rainbow stripes for the rest of my life. In normal cycling that's the one-day race that I can achieve the maximum. But I want the Olympics.
"Everyone knows about Project Rainbow Jersey [a three-year plan by British Cycling to earn him world champion status] but that was only the name at the top of the chart. It [the World Championships] was all about aiming for the 2012 Olympics. It was a stepping stone on the way."
Cavendish has often said it is fear of failure, rather than desire to win, that motivates him as an athlete, which makes you think there might be a score to settle at the Olympics.
After all, the last image of Cavendish at a Games was in the Laoshan Velodrome in Beijing as he stalked towards the exit door, the only member of the all-conquering GB track team not to get a medal, mouthing four words to the British journalists asking for a quote: "Not in the mood".
However, he denies that there is any sense of unfinished business. "It's completely irrelevant how I did in Beijing. That was over in a few weeks. What matters is I've got the Olympic Games in London on a course that [completely] suits us as a team.
"And as long as we really look into every little detail beforehand, if we know every scenario, every variable, we can go in and execute the plan as we did in Copenhagen [at the World Championships].
"It's the hardest thing in the world to make sure a million different details all go your way, but we can't look at it emotionally, we have to look at it logically."
Cavendish is so categorical it seems almost contradictory when he then confirms that, rather than abandon the 2012 Tour de France mid-race, the plan is to complete it. Surely there's a risk of burning himself out for London in the world's toughest bike race? However, there's a cold-blooded rationale behind that, too.
"Last year I went for the green jersey specifically, and I ended the Tour really tired, and I don't want to be that tired again. The last week of the 2012 Tour is not that savage, so I can kind of taper down.
"This time I'll take it like in other years, just go for stage wins. But the plan is to go all the way to Paris [where the Tour finishes]. I'd be training for the Olympics but riding the Tour de France at the same time."
Other big objectives on Cavendish's programme for 2012 have dovetailed neatly into his Olympic build-up, too. A repeat win in one of cycling's top five one-day races, the Milan-San Remo Classic this March – but this time wearing the world champion's rainbow jersey, unlike in 2009 – is one major goal. Positively fizzing with enthusiasm for the idea, Cavendish shows me a photo on his mobile phone he has just received of the last rider to do that – Giuseppe Saronni, arms in the air on San Remo's Via Roma in 1983 after winning the worlds the summer before.
"I'm really, really, excited about this season," he says. "I made no secret in the last couple of years that I didn't want to go well until later, but this time I want to be good at least until the Tour and Olympics. I've had a winter similar to 2008 and 2009, and I'm even leaner than I was then." So lean, in fact, that he is already reported to be just three kilos off his end-of-Tour weight.
Things have moved on enormously, he agrees, since our last interview in Qatar 12 months previously, when excessive demands on his time by sponsors and constant international travel made him feel he was living out of a suitcase. The pressure remains, but he has changed his attitude towards it. In the process, though, he has not lost touch with the reasons why he is on a bike.
"I still love racing, still want to win. The desire's still there, but now I have to deal with the trappings that come with success. I didn't have that before." There have probably been three stages of that [in my career]. First, there was the me that didn't even have to bother with that; and then there was the me when that [the pressure of success] was coming and I couldn't handle it.
"And now is the time when I'm racing, I'm here and I just have to get on with it."
Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend, Peta Todd, are expecting their first child in early April. Family life may not be as ordered as Cavendish's sports life – but in this respect, he doesn't mind.
"It's incredible how when you get settled, you feel so much better for yourself. In my cycling, everything is preconceived. I set a target and I control how it's done. With a family, you're kind of less in control, you have to let it go."
However, Cavendish would not be Cavendish if he and his girlfriend had not got as much as possible planned for the birth. "I like to be prepared, so the furniture's bought, the nursery's done up, she's got a year's supply of clothes – well, a lot of clothes. I'm ready for that. It's going to be very special to be able to dedicate her that first victory, too."
Already cycling's most high-profile rider on the Continent, Cavendish says he is noticing a sharp spike in recognition from the general public in the UK. It's a sign of his immense pride in his achievements, though, that it is not enough for him to be asked for an autograph when out shopping: it matters to him that the public knows why he is a celebrity, too.
"I'm getting stopped more, in the past it was [only] cyclists, which was sound. Then there was the phase when it was, 'Oh, you're that guy that rode the Tour de France', and I didn't really like that because I'm not a fan of celebrity without celebrating something. I mean, I don't like that Big Brother stuff on TV, I hate all that.
"Now, though, people have a better idea of what the Tour de France actually is. If you had told me a couple of years ago everybody would be interrupting my dinner when I'm in a restaurant, I'd have got pissed off... but the fact that they appreciate you, it's quite warming, you know?"
A huge chunk of that new recognition arrived after Cavendish's 2011 World Championships win. And while you would expect him to hold dear the original rainbow jersey – "it's in my office, I'm going to get it framed but we have to get the garage done first" – for another indicator of how important that win was to him look no further than another item heading for the garage: Cavendish's bike on which he won the World Championships, still in its exact, dirt-splattered state that it was in when he crossed the finish line in Copenhagen.
"The bike is unwashed from that day, with its race number on, and I'm keeping it that way," he says. "And I've still got the skinsuit I wore that day, too, with the race numbers pinned on and autographed by the whole team."
Should things go his way on 29 July, chances are that his 2011 bike won't be the only one, battle-worn but glorious, lurking in Cavendish's garage. Not even Cavendish the perfectionist could bear to wash the bike on which he had achieved a victory as important as that.
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