Mark Cavendish: My position as cycling's greatest sprinter is under threat – now I have a point to prove
Mark Cavendish reveals the military-style precision that goes into his race preparation and explains why he is officially a genius
Mark Cavendish combines intense preparation with a near-photographic memory
Winning formula: Mark Cavendish combines intense preparation with a near-photographic memory Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND
By Jonathan Liew
11:00PM GMT 04 Nov 2013
“You start a kilometre before the Poggio. Comes up slightly. Some traffic lights. Then you come back onto the cape, come round, rise up slightly, 500 metres to the Poggio, which is kind of like a bottleneck. That’s 9km to go.”
The mind of Mark Cavendish is a place few are capable of understanding. At a superficial level, there is something essentially disarming about him. The thin, reedy voice; a brusqueness of manner; a simplicity of vocabulary; an abruptness of tone; a truculence that is often mistaken for denseness.
If you were to form an opinion of Cavendish based on his post-race interviews alone, you might indeed conclude that he was a little dim.
“Then you’ve got a hairpin. Goes back on itself. Gradually bears round. It flattens up, then a hairpin, then slightly flat to the next hairpin. Turns right, kicks up a bit, then the steepest part of the Poggio. About 6km to go.”
But Cavendish is not dim. He is a genius. The most skilful sprinter in British cycling history also happens to have perhaps the sharpest brain in the sport. Those two facts are by no means coincidental.
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“If I do a circuit,” he assures me, “then after three laps I could tell you where all the potholes were.”
Cavendish cannot say when or how he developed his photographic memory. All he knows is that he possesses an extraordinary gift for absorbing his surroundings. All cyclists reconnoitre the courses they will ride, learning the cambers, getting a feel for the twists. For Cavendish, knowledge comes more naturally. When he first applied to join the British Cycling academy as a teenager, coach Rod Ellingworth asked him to describe his journey.
Cavendish was able to describe his trip from the Isle of Man to Manchester in minute detail: the road numbers, the towns he went through, the times he went through them. Ellingworth realised he had an unusual talent on his hands.
“Then it kicks up for 500 metres. That’s normally where the splits go. Then it flattens off, around to the top of Poggio. Then a sharp left. You can’t take it on the inside, the road drops away from you. Down to the hairpin, then the descent. Bottom of the Poggio, 3km to go.”
The last few kilometres of a sprint are where Cavendish gets to work. As the leading teams manoeuvre themselves towards the front of the bunch, Cavendish’s mind starts running in slow motion.
“For me, it’s like a calculation, a series of movements, a series of chess moves. Not thinking, not having to react. Just reacting. By the time we start the sprint, my heart rate is probably 20 or 30 beats slower than the other guys. So many cyclists train their bodies. They don’t train their mind. I constantly do puzzle books. Smash through them. My iPad’s full of them. Logic puzzles. Bridges. Slitherlink.”
He pulls an iPad out of his bag. A picture of his wife Peta adorns the background screen as he opens up his latest puzzle, a variation on Sudoku.
“Hanidoku. You’ve got this honeycomb. Every single line has to have a consecutive run of numbers. Could be one to five, could be two to six. So there’s got to be a five here, because there’s a four there, but it can’t go with another five. Do you see?”
Does he do puzzles to nurture his cycling brain, or are both symptoms of his basic inquisitive intelligence? “A bit of both. Like, I play Scrabble against random opponents, and if I lose that I’m as p----- off as if I lose a Tour de France stage.”
Is he a genius? “Last time I did an IQ test I was, yeah.” But a very particular sort of genius. “You called it conscious subconscious competence,” Cavendish’s agent Simon Bayliff pipes up from the back of the room. “You know when an athlete is in the zone? There’s actually a stage beyond that, where you are actually conscious of your subconscious. There’s a ladder: conscious incompetence, then conscious competence, then subconscious competence, which is the zone.”
“Now I have no f------ idea what he’s talking about,” Cavendish says, and we all laugh.
The closing stages of the 2011 World Championship in Copenhagen are a case in point. As the sprint wound up the finishing straight, Cavendish was aware that the wind was blowing towards the left, and that the peloton would naturally drift in that direction. So he placed himself on the right, waited for the gap he knew would open up, and surged through it to become world champion. Another puzzle solved.
“There’s dustbins on the right of the road that they never, ever move. You come back down the main road, 2km to go. Then a left.”
But a brilliant mind only goes halfway to making a champion. The rest is attitude, and especially for a rider as small and stocky as Cavendish, the sheer drive to put in the physical work required. “My stepson, if he can’t do something, he just says ‘I’m not doing it’. I was the exact opposite. If I couldn’t do anything, I had to do it.”
At 28, Cavendish is no longer a boy racer. Younger, bigger challengers like Marcel Kittel and André Greipel are snapping at his heels. The redoubtable Peter Sagan now owns his Tour de France green jersey. “I feel that I’m getting older,” Cavendish says. “I don’t have the punch. I have to work on my sprint now, which I didn’t have to do before.”
Brian Holm, a great friend and Cavendish’s boss when he was at HTC-Highroad, once said that Cavendish rode better when he was angry. Does that still hold true?
“To an extent. Not so much angry: I’ve really learnt to control anger, it’s a waste of energy. But when I’ve got a point to prove, that will still be the case. I’ve been relatively unchallenged until now, and now people are challenging my position as the most dominant sprinter in the world.”
After Cavendish the thinker, and Cavendish the racer, comes a glimpse into Cavendish the man. His new book, out this week, reveals a more mature and reflective subject, deeply devoted to his wife and daughter. It is the same unflinching, unstinting bond he shares with those who have helped him along the way: trade-team colleagues, British team-mates, friends and sponsors.
Cavendish’s world is a diverse, collegiate and yet fiercely loyal place. “I don’t know any different,” he says. “I don’t like being in London too long, because everybody’s just looking straight forward, at nobody else. That freaks me out a little bit.
“I have a house in a small town in Tuscany where everybody knows and looks out for each other. That’s a similar mentality to on the Isle of Man.”
So, finally, a test. I ask Cavendish if he can describe the last kilometre into Sanremo, the town where he achieved his breakthrough win in 2009.
Cavendish says he will do the last 10km. After about five minutes of minuscule detail, you can see his eyes glaze over as he describes the closing stages.
“Left, then a roundabout, then a right. Then you come down, the road forks and you bear left: 1km to go. It comes down, onto the car park, they put up the road barriers on race day. The last 600 metres is straight. And there you finish.”
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