In 2021 the entire world of road cycling had written off Mark Cavendish as a competitive force. After being plagued by a virus and then the interruptions of the pandemic, the former World Champion and Tour de France green jersey winner was definitely off the pace, and nowhere near his world-crushing form of 2016.
He seemed to flirt with retiring from racing in 2020. When he did eventually sign with a team in December 2020, it was at their minimum salary – he even had to bring his own sponsor along with him. Cavendish was drafted in at the last minute to be the team’s Tour de France sprinter, but the stage was set for his career to go out not with a bang, but a whimper.
But then from nowhere he started to win, bagging Stages 4, 6, 10 and 13 of the 2021 Tour de France and equalling the GOAT of cycling, Eddie Merckz’s record of 34 career Tour de France stage wins. It wasn’t just that he came back into physical form – duking it out elbow to elbow at 40mph with a packed bunch of cyclists takes the confidence of a heavyweight boxer, facing down heavy consequences. Cavendish knows this better than most – he ended his 2021 season in intensive care with a punctured lung after being taken out in the Six Days of Ghent track event.
But in the 2021 Tour de France, Cavendish's doubters had to eat their words, and more importantly his bulletproof self-belief was back in force…
RSNG Coming back to cycling and winning not one, but four stages of the Tour de France must have been quite the feeling?
MARK CAVENDISH, THE TDF’S COMEBACK KING “I’ll be honest, and I think I have said this before – but I was so happy just to be there. When Sam Bennett got injured, I was asked to step in as the lead sprinter and suddenly the world opened up for me again. It was amazing.
“The Tour de France is such a special event and I was so pumped to get the call for the team. I wanted to go there and give a good account of myself, and I certainly felt I could do that. As for winning four stages and drawing level with Eddie Merckx (with 34 stage wins)? Well, that was dreamland for me.”
RSNG The fact you couldn’t topple Merckx’s record surely means you are hungry to come back in 2022?
MARK CAVENDISH “Well I’ve always been hungry to race, and I don’t think that will ever change.
“When I finished just short in Paris I banged my handlebars because I knew that was my chance to wrap up the record. As The Tour had gone on I was counting down the stages and, of course, had it in my head that perhaps there were enough opportunities to get to that magical number of 35.
“As it turns out I was one short, and I won’t deny there was a part of me that really wanted to get that record, as it may have made deciding whether to push for next year’s tour, or not, that much easier.”
RSNG The sport of cycling moves on and evolves quicker than most and there weren’t many people who would have backed you to triumph, despite your incredible track record at the event?
MARK CAVENDISH “No, it’s true, there weren’t. The truth was I had been away from The Tour for a couple of years, for various reasons, and there are always young riders coming through, which is great. You can’t expect to stay at the top forever, and this race will test you like no other.”
RSNG Being a sprinter demands an incredible level of self-belief. But I’ve read about your superstitions in the past, such as not bathing and always wearing the same kit. Do you still have them?
MARK CAVENDISH “I think I started to lose most of my superstitions when I began to get absolute faith in the fact I was an accomplished rider and what really took me forward to glory was my ability to race, not luck.
“I used to think it was good luck to have a complete new set of kit for every single event. So, new undervests, shorts, jersey, socks – everything completely new. But not anymore. It was expensive and it became a problem getting hold of everything.
“I also didn’t want people to think I was some primadonna, so I realized the whole kit superstition thing had to stop, haha!”
RSNG You’ve described yourself as being in a world of Ivan Dragos to your Rocky with regards to stature, and that your advantage over them is your mental strength. However, you know that Rocky won, right?
MARK CAVENDISH “Well yeah, I do, because I have too haha! The thing with me is that the mental edge I may have comes from relentless preparation. I learn every course I ride… when I can slipstream, when I can push, which parts of the course suit me. I always regard myself as being ready.
“And from regular competitive riding you will learn the techniques and tactics of those around you. Often in cycling, particularly on breakaways or at the front of the peloton, it will become a game of chess. The psychology of riding always sits there in the background and it can be really demanding.”
I get so emotional when I give interviews straight after races and that’s where you get my true thoughts, really
RSNG You spoke about retirement in 2020, but then made a U-turn just days later. What prompted that talk of quitting?
MARK CAVENDISH “It was all just because of Coronavirus halting the world’s sport events. I never really wanted to stop at all, I love cycling and I know I still have a lot to give to it and it to me. But sometimes, outside sources can make you think and they did. They made me reconsider who I was and what I had achieved; and of course what I still wanted to go on to achieve.
“Many sportsmen use an event – winning something big, parenthood, injury – as a cue to call it quits, and I know Covid did for many.
“I didn’t have a contract sorted for the next calendar year, so in that instance you start thinking, and sometimes you start thinking out loud!”
RSNG You’ve always been really up front and honest in interviews, haven’t you?
MARK CAVENDISH “That’s just me – I couldn’t do it any other way. I get so emotional when I give interviews straight after races and that’s where you get my true thoughts, really. The adrenaline is still flowing and everyone can see what it truly means. There’s really no greater feeling for a rider.”
RSNG But what led to all this? Being from the Isle of Man and arguably the island’s most famous event – the Isle of Man TT – did this influence you wanting to go into cycling?
MARK CAVENDISH “I actually don’t know if it did or not, to be honest. Maybe it was subconscious, but I would say that it’s a physiological reason as to why I can go fast on a bicycle and obviously, if I had gone on to be able to race vehicles with a motor then maybe I could attribute my career influences as coming from the TT.”
RSNG But you do like, own and race motor vehicles, don’t you?
MARK CAVENDISH “Yeah, I love motorbikes but pedal bikes are always the real deal for me.”
RSNG What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone on a pedal bike, then?
MARK CAVENDISH “About 123kph on the descent at the Swiss Tour and I wasn’t even the fastest on the course that day. Fabian Cancellara got to 134kph and you’ve got most of the peloton doing 120kph, so that was very fast indeed.
“People ask what’s going through your mind when you’re going that fast on a bicycle and that it must be scary without any real protection. Of course, being exposed to the elements can be scary, but you cannot let that into your mind – if you do, you’ve already lost.
“The only thing in my mind when I was going that fast was: “How can I go faster?” Haha! The adrenaline rush is unreal.”
No-one can win the Tour by himself – it is truly the team that wins, and I think most people realize that
RSNG Do you feel there is any other sport that exists where the majority of the team will sacrifice itself in order for one rider to take the glory?
MARK CAVENDISH “It is incredible what these guys go through for their team leaders. No-one can win the Tour by himself – it is truly the team that wins, and I think most people realize that.”
RSNG What’s your worst moment on a bike?
MARK CAVENDISH “The crash in the Harrogate stage of the Tour de France is definitely up there with the worst experiences I have ever had on a bike. The crash was my fault and what made it sadder for me was that my mum is from Harrogate and I really wanted to win that stage more than any other.
“I dislocated my collarbone and that pain was bad, but I tried to force a gap that wasn’t there and bumped into Simon Gerrans – who I later apologized to in person – and we both crashed out with 250 yards to the finish line. It was devastating.”
**RSNG And your best? **
MARK CAVENDISH “I would have to say that when I was world champion in Copenhagen. That was the biggest thing I could win, so to take the rainbow jersey was just an incredible feeling. The good thing is that no-one can take that away from you – you have the rainbow stripes on your sleeve forever!”
I also didn’t want people to think I was some primadonna, so realised the whole kit superstition thing had to stop.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Mark Cavendish destroy the up-and-coming sprinters in a Derny race - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpzxrAoHPUI