Mark Cavendish has warned his rivals in next month’s Tour de France that he is approaching the race in better form than ever before and that despite changes to the way points are awarded, he is planning on pursuing the green jersey by doing what he does best – winning stages.
The HTC Highroad rider was speaking at a café in London’s Soho this morning, where the assembled media were told beforehand that the question most want answered wasn’t open to discussion – Cavendish’s destination for 2012, following recent reports linking him with a move to Team Sky.
This will be Cavendish’s fifth participation in cycling’s biggest race, and if you thought that with 15 stage wins under his belt some degree of complacency might have set in, think again – just the thought of riding in it still thrills the 26-year-old Manxman.
“The last few weeks I’ve been pretty excited about it,” he admits. “It’s the biggest race of the year and the whole world’s watching.”
What’s more, Cavendish claims he’s in better shape now than he was 12 months ago, when he went on to win five stages including ripping the field apart on the closing day on the Champs-Elysees for the second year running.
“I’ve got a lot more confidence, to be honest,” he says, comparing his recent form with this time last year when early-season illness was followed by a bruising crash in the Tour de Suisse that disrupted his preparations for the Tour.
“I’m 100 per cent confident that I couldn’t have done any more. If I don’t win, if I can’t win, it’s because someone’s better than me, it’s not because I haven’t prepared properly, or because the team hasn’t prepared properly,” he adds.
So how many stages would he be satisfied wining this year? Cavendish doesn’t hesitate before giving an answer that may surprise many of his fans and detractors alike.
“It’s like I say every year, I’ll be happy to go home with one, it’s the Tour de France.
“One stage win can make any rider’s career, so you have to be happy with one. There’s five that should be a bunch sprint, seven that are a possible bunch sprint. But a lot of teams now, instead of trying to win, to try and do what they can to make us not win, so that’s the difficulty we face.”
One stage he won’t be targeting specifically is the first one of the race, from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes, which features a tricky uphill kick towards the end.
“I’ve won harder, but I’ve been dropped on easier. We don’t know. We’re lucky that we’ve got three guys, four guys on our team that could win on that. But I think there are more favourites, I can say now that we won’t be pulling on that day anyway, we’ll only pull on ones that we’re 100 per cent confident of winning.
“If somebody wants to bring back the break, it’s up to them to keep the race together because we’re not 100 per cent confident in that finish. We’ll give everything we can to try and win but for sure we’re not the favourites on that stage.”
Nevertheless, it’s unusual for the Tour to start with anything other than a Prologue, so surely Cavendish must be tempted by the thought of trying to snatch the yellow jersey?
“I’ll give 100 per cent but I’m not a favourite,” he confesses. “It’s pretty rare for a sprinter to be able to wear the yellow jersey nowadays, there’s no time bonuses any more in the Tour de France, it would be a massive thing.
“I’ve worn the leader’s jersey in the Giro, I’ve worn the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta, and I’d like to do it in the Tour de France. But I’d be just as happy if it was on the shoulders of one of my team mates.”
The following day sees a team time trial around Les Assarts in which HTC-Columbia will start as one of the favourites.
But while Cavendish is at pains to point out the meticulous preparation that he and the team make for the Tour in general, studying stages in greater detail than many other teams, he insists that unlike some, they do not go out of their way to recce team time trial courses. You wouldn’t know it from their results.
“We never do preparation for the team time trial,” he reveals. “You see Garmin and Sky going and doing these team time trial camps, we never do. You can do it without training as long as you have the right mentality in the team. I’ve done five grand tour team time trials, three of them I’ve been in the winning team. The other two were the ones where I didn’t take control of the team.
“It’s not about nine guys, nine individuals trying to get to the finish, it’s about getting the best from that nine-man unit. As long as everyone knows what they need to do, they can visualise going through it. If you’ve seen Cool Runnings where they’re in the bath, it’s like that. Most of the guys who are in the running for the Tour team have won a Grand Tour team time trial. They know how it goes,” he adds.
“I’ve studied the whole course, the mountains, the sprints, the intermediates,” Cavendish continues. “If you know the course, then you don’t really have to worry about anything. I know there’s not many people who do it, they open their race book the day before a stage or on the morning of the stage and see what’s going on. We do our homework so it takes that worrying away because we know what we have to do when we have to do it.”
While changes to the points classification this year mean that there are points on offer to the first 15 riders at just one intermediate sprint on each stage, Cavendish asserts that his approach to targeting the jersey won’t change and that he’ll try and achieve it by winning more stages on the road than anyone else.
“I want the green jersey,” he states. “I am going for the green jersey and I’ve wanted the green jersey the last two years. It’s just my way of going for the green jersey is to try and win as many stages as possible. Technically there’s more points on offer for a stage win so you should come out on top but it hasn’t been the case the last two years. I haven’t got the green jersey but it’s not through not trying. My tactics of getting it is how I did it.”
He rejects the suggestion that in 2009, Thor Hushovd had won green by chasing points at intermediate sprints, pointing instead to his own disqualification from the results in one stage after he was adjudged to have ridden across the Norwegian’s line. It’s a ruling that still clearly smarts. “It was decided on a harsh decision two years ago,” he says simply, brooking no argument.
Asking his audience to immediately name the last two men to have won the points classification, a brief pause before the name of last year’s winner is ventured proves his point that winning stages takes precedence over the green jersey.
“Of course it’s important, but my way of winning it is to win stages that’s remembered anyway and you see how the organisers have changed the situation because it was obvious that the fastest sprinter wasn’t winning the green jersey.
“Last year maybe so, Petacchi was more consistent than me, but in 2009 I should have won it, that’s a given, so you can rule that one out.
“So technically, last year Petacchi was more consistent and you can argue that that’s what you’ve got to be to go for the green jersey, but if you win five stages and you’re still 10 points behind...” he reflects.
“I crashed on Stage 1, I sat up on Stage 4,” he adds. “I could have had it, but you have to be consistent, you can’t crash, you can’t sit up, Petacchi didn’t.”
While speculation may be rife that the sprinter is heading for Team Sky, his praise for his current team mates at HTC-Highroad, a regular feature of his post-race interviews, couldn’t be higher.
He reserves particularly high praise for his leadout man, Mark Renshaw, whom he says plays an invaluable role in leaving him free to focus on the business end of the race, something that is essential due to the rigours of riding a three-week tour.
“A lot of the fatigue in the Tour de France doesn’t come from the physical exertion, it comes from the mental pressure, the mental strain of racing like that,” he reveals.
“Everything is 5 kilometres an hour faster, uphill, downhill, left, right, it’s the biggest race in the world, it’s the 200 best bike riders in the world, all on their best form, all with the pressure to win. That’s what makes it so different,” he says.
“So the mental pressure of being there and having to think and concentrate and stay at the front is massive and that takes such a lot of energy away.
“Now there’s two people in cycling who I’d take their judgment – I’ve got a pretty good race head, I can see spaces, I can make decisions – but there’s two people in cycling who I would take their decision over my decision.
“If I thought initially they were wrong, I’d still follow them because they know what they’re doing, that’s Mark Renshaw and George Hincapie,” whom he rode with before the American left to join BMC Racing at the end of 2009.
“That’s the thing about Mark, he just takes so much mental stress off me because all I have to do is follow him. It just saves so much energy that allows me to go better at the finish,” he continues.
“He came to the team in 2009, we had our first sprint day together in the Tour of California, it didn’t work out and then second sprint day it worked and then every single day we’ve raced together since then I can put 100 per cent trust in him.
“I can look at his brake calliper with 50 kilometres to go, I know if someone said to me shout at 200 metres I’d be second wheel behind him and that’s a pretty good situation to be in.
“I need everybody else in the team as well, Mark’s lucky that he can follow Bernie [Eisel], who’ll know where to go, Bernie can follow Tony [Martin], who’ll know where to go, it’s not just me and Mark, the whole team know where we’re going. It’s so great that we can have the trust in each and every one ahead of us it just takes away that pressure of having to think for ourselves,” he adds.
Cavendish is also at pains to dispel what he sees as two commonly held misconceptions about him – one, that he can’t hack it when the road heads uphill, the second that he’s lost without his leadout train.
“Listen. I challenge anyone to come on a hilly ride with me,” he responds when asked whether he is disappointed that there are only two stages he describes as “pan-flat” in this year’s race.
“I can’t climb on Alps or hilly climbs, but just because it’s not pan-flat, if you go over a bridge that’s not something I’m going to get dropped on. When I say ‘pan-flat,’ I’m talking in professional speak, When you talk about a flat finish, you talk about a big boulevard, a bunch sprint, not a technical one going up and down.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going to win less, it’s just more difficult for me to win. On a boulevard bunch sprint it comes down to whoever’s fastest normally at the end of the day. If it’s more technical, you and your team have to do a lot more, so there’s less of a percentage outcome of a win, it’s 90 per cent rather than 100 per cent. So it doesn’t mean I’m frustrated, it just means I’m not going to win as easily.”
One of those potential stage wins won’t be on Stage 4, which finishes with the very tough climb of the aptly-named Mur de Bretagne, but if you’re wondering about who to have in your Fantasy Cycling team that day, Cavendish has a tip for you which he says is “Guaranteed, 100 per cent. Philippe Gilbert – it’s his birthday.”
Contesting any suggestion that he can’t win without his leadout train, Cavendish first admits, “I never like it when my train stops working. I’m a perfectionist, if it’s not working, something’s gone wrong and I don’t like that. Whether I win or not I still won’t be happy. But I like the opportunity to race, I grew up as a racer.
“Another common misconception is that I can’t do shit without a train. But you don’t turn professional at 21 and they say ‘Here’s a train, you’ve got to perform,’ you earn it. And that’s because of racing.”
Cavendish goes on to outline a typical sprint stage on the Tour, and his emphasis is very much on it being a job of work rather than something done for fun – as he says, “it’s not a hobby, it’s a profession.
“Every single flat day or mediocre day, a couple of guys attack – usually French – they get a minute, everyone stops for a wee. Bert Grabsch or someone similar gets on the front, rides, and we ride in a line of nine riders, the whole day, with me on ninth position, nobody either side of me for me to talk to, sat there, and then I’ve got to fight at the end.
“For sure the winning’s good but for a guy who likes racing it’s a bit monotonous to be honest. But I’m paid to do that. I’ve been racing the classics, that’s because I want to race something, and I’m lucky that I’ve got the opportunity to be able to do that.
“It’s not that I enjoy it more I want to win whether I have to do it like that or whether I have to do it freestyle, I want to cross the line first. To be able to race, it brings me back to why I love cycling in the first place.
Rider safety has been the focus of much attention over the past couple of months, first with Wouter Weylandt’s death in the Giro d’Italia and then the crash in the Tour de Suisse last week that left Movistar’s Juan Mauricio Soler in a coma. As a sprinter whose job is at the sharp end, do incidents such as those make Cavendish hesitate, or is it something that he just has to put out of his mind?
There’s a long, reflective pause before he replies. “I guess you have to put it to one side. It’s not nice. But it’s the job we’re paid to do. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone now and there’s a lot of risks being taken in the peloton. But that’s cycling. You have to adapt to it. If you can take control and stay at the front, you’re out of trouble anyway.
“The roads in Europe are different now,” he adds. “But the Tour de France I think they’re trying to make it safer. You’ve just got to deal with it, you’ve got to make sure you know where is dangerous and put yourself in as safe a situation as possible.”
That increased pressure, Cavendish believes, comes partly from the blanket media coverage of the sport these days, and partly because of the pressure that some riders come under from their directeurs sportive to take risks and continue to battle during the stage.
“It’s reminiscent of an espoirs race where everybody’s got a point to prove because they want to turn professional,” he explains. “Now when they turn professional it’s the same, it makes for a different kind of racing.”
In his next couple of races, Cavendish will be riding for himself with none of his HTC-Highroad team mates for company, including in the National Championships in Northumberland this Sunday, although he isn’t targeting succeeding Geraint Thomas to the title.
“I’m just going to get a good day of racing in. There’s no chance to win with 97 Sky riders there,” he laughs. “It’s the same like Holland with Rabobank, it doesn’t happen. So I’ll just go there and have a good day’s racing. It’s good preparation for the Tour to be honest.”
Before that, he’s also riding in the Leazes Criterium in Newcastle this Friday evening, giving British fans a rare opportunity to get a good look at him close-up, in the flesh. “It would be nice to put a show on,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s a different style of racing to everything that I’ve been doing, but I’ll go in and try to race.”
Following the Tour, he’ll be back in Britain to race again in the Olympic test event being held on the same route as will be used in next year’s road race, although the riders will only have to negotiate Box Hill three times instead of the nine climbs that will field will have to tackle in 2012.
Come the Olympics, Box Hill is likely to see plenty of attacks as some of the stronger climbers in the peloton seek to succeed Samuel Sanchez of Spain, winner in Beijing three years ago, but Cavendish isn’t perturbed, saying: “I wouldn’t be entering if I didn’t see it coming down to a bunch sprint on The Mall.”
“It’s not going to be a full indication of what will happen in the Olympic road race,” he adds, since besides the shorter course, this August’s event, the London Surrey Cycle Classic, which will be raced by national teams, will give riders less recovery time following the Tour than they will have last year.
Although it’s too early to tell – and much will depend on who Cavendish is riding for this time next year – that could potentially mean his not completing the Tour de France, as happened in 2008 when he departed mid-race to prepare for his unsuccessful tilt at the Madison in Beijiong with Bradley Wiggins.
His other big target this year, of course, is the World Championships in Copenhagen. With Great Britain currently ninth in the UCI world rankings, Cavendish is hopeful that the country will have a full team of nine riders in this September’s race – indeed, one of the reasons he chose to race the Giro this year was to seek to pick up ranking points.
Last year, with the country falling out of the top ten, he had just David Millar and Jeremy Hunt for company and didn’t feature in a race in which the Geelong circuit didn’t favour a bunch finish.
However, Cavendish has another explanation for his failing to make a mark on the race – leading the points classification in the Vuelta meant that he “went too deep” into that race to defend the jersey while other riders, including the winner in Australia, Thor Hushovd, pulled out of the race midway through.
While he plans to ride in the Vuelta this year – and recent history suggests that it’s riders who race in Spain who do well at the worlds – he insists, “It’s not important. I’m not going into the Vuelta to try and win a jersey. I want to win stages. If I have the jersey I’ll go for it, but the world championship is a big goal. I know what I have to do this year.
“I think I’m going to be one of the favourites,” he says of Copenhagen. “It’s a big goal for me for the year. It should be a pretty straightforward bunch sprint. You’ve got a big long road for the last few kilometres with a 90 degree right hander with 600, 700 metres to go, it kicks up for the last 300, a big wide finish, it should be a bunch sprint really. The most important thing about the sprint will be timing it right. I’m looking forward to it.”
Should he succeed in Copenhagen, Cavendish will become only the second British male pro to win the rainbow jersey on the road after the late Tom Simpson. A win there, and he might even follow Simpson to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
Personality is something Cavendish certainly isn’t short of. In the relaxed surroundings of a London café, there’s no sign of the infamously brusque manner he can sometimes adopt immediately post race when things haven’t gone his way.
Official recognition has of course come in recent weeks with the award of an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this month. Asked by a member of the foreign press how he should be addressed following receipt of that honour, Cavendish laughs. “Sir Cav,” he chuckles, quickly adding, “No. Mark Cavendish MBE.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.