Interview: Mark Cavendish on David Millar, the Tour, the Olympics and becoming a father
World champion also looks back on early months of season with Team Sky
Mark Cavendish has said he would “love” to have David Millar alongside him on the start line for the Olympic road race this July, and is targeting both Olympic gold and a successful defence of the green jersey in the Tour de France. The world champion, speaking at the West London launch of Team Sky’s new Jaguar XF Sportbrake cars, also reflected on what it means to him to be a father following the birth of his daughter earlier this month.
With the British Olympic Association having reportedly conceded that it expects the Court of Arbitration for Sport to rule that its lifetime Olympic ban for athletes banned for six months or more is unenforceable, Millar is set to become eligible for selection for London 2012, although it’s far from certain whether he will make himself available.
Cavendish, however, is unequivocal in wanting the man who was arguably the key member of the Great Britain team that helped him win the rainbow jersey last year in Denmark to perform a similar role in the event that will see the first gold medal awarded of this summer’s Olympics.
“I’d love David Millar to be on the start line with me,” he maintains. “He captained our team to the world championship last year in Copenhagen and I’d love him to be there in the Olympic Games.
“He’s a loyal team mate and very good physically, and he’ll make a massive difference to our team,” he continues, before going on to outline some of the specific qualities that Millar could bring to the team.
“There’s no radios allowed in the Olympic Games, it’s harder when you’re in a bike race than watching it on TV,” he explains. “You have to be able to read a race and know what’s going on, that’s where experience comes in.”
With that Olympic road race exactly 14 weeks away now and the ruling on the lifetime ban due any day now, it’s natural that Millar’s potential presence in the team is a topic of discussion. But Team Sky’s star sprinter is quick to remind his audience that we are here to interview Mark Cavendish.
Last August, fresh from winning the green jersey in the Tour de France, Cavendish triumphed on the Mall in the Olympic test event, the London-Surrey Cycle Classic, which included two circuits of the Box Hill loop, which will be tackled nine times in the Olympics.
Since that race last year, he’s continued to go out on the roads where it is hoped he can clinch Great Britain’s first medal of the Games.
“I’ve recced the course,” he reveals. “I’ve done specific training, but nothing too much out of the ordinary. It’s not about the technical side of looking at it, it’s a pretty straightforward course to technically ride, it’s just about the physical thing; you’ve got to ride it as much as you can.”
The Olympic road race takes place just six days after the Tour de France finishes in Paris. When Team Sky signed Cavendish late last year, many wondered how it would reconcile Cavendish’s defence of the green jersey with Bradley Wiggins’ hopes of becoming the first British rider to win the maillot jaune; the last team to win both in the same season was Team Telekom through Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich, respectively, in 1997.
Recently, Dave Brailsford, Team Principal at Team Sky and Performance Director at British Cycling, and therefore the man who has the final say on how Wiggins and Cavendish will prioritise their seasons, suggested that it would make sense for the former would focus on the maillot jaune at the Tour, while the world champion would concentrate on the Olympic road race.
Cavendish, however, doesn’t see why he shouldn’t chase glory in the Tour and at London 2012. “I still want to win them both,” he insists. “I’ll finish the Tour de France. Unless I get eliminated, I’m not pulling out of the Tour de France. But I want to do well in both.
“It’s hard,” he admits. “You’ve got to take the six days and every single hour has got to count to recover. But it’s not like I’m coming from a different sport into the Olympics. Probably all the favourites for the Olympics will be riding the Tour de France anyway, so it’s not like I’m in a different boat to anyone.
“I need a good team at the Tour de France and a good team at the Olympic Games,” he continues. “It’s not me winning the green jersey, it’s not me winning the Olympic Games. It’s Team Sky winning at the Tour de France and it’s Great Britain winning at the Olympics. So we need the best way to do that.”
It’s put to Cavendish that a big reason behind Cadel Evans’ success in the Tour de France last year was because his BMC Racing team didn’t have the distraction of also targeting the sprint stages, and his team mates were therefore able to give the Australian their full support. Cavendish disagrees.
“Believe me, I was there last year and I saw BMC in a bunch sprint every day, every kilometre of every day,” he comments. “They were working for Cadel, but they were there alongside our train every day. BMC did as much work on the front as HTC last year in the final kilometres, although they didn’t have two guys riding all day like we did.”
He believes that in this year’s Tour, Team Sky won’t be left alone to shoulder the workload to ensure that breaks are chased down. “There’s more teams now that are probably going to ride, it’s not going to be like last year where it’s like we’ll leave it to HTC because they ride.
“There’s some guys who have got confidence now, there’s some guys who have won races. Kittel’s going well, and Argos-Shimano are going with the sole goal of bunch sprints, and obviously Lotto have got confidence in Greipel, there’s going to be more teams to control the race now during the day. Apart from that, we’re in exactly the same boat as everyone else.”
So will he continue the phenomenal strike rate that has seen him win a average of five stages in the last four editions of the race, one of which, in 2008, he left early to prepare for an unsuccessful assault on the Madison at Beijing with Wiggins?
Cavendish concedes that he may sometimes get a sprint wrong, “but I won’t make the same mistake twice.”
He goes on: “When Greipel beat me last year, you could put every penny you have that I’d win the day after. I take it as a compliment that I can win nine out of ten, but if I lose one, then I’m losing it, and the guy who’s won the one out of ten is making it. But they’ve lost nine out of ten.’
Asked how he feels the early months of his career with Team Sky have gone, Cavendish says: “It’s been good. You can read in some magazines that I’m on the way down, because I didn’t win Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem – but neither did most other people.
“I won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, I won four other races, Just because you didn’t win two of the biggest bike races in the world, it doesn’t mean you’re going down, if you’re targeting the two biggest bike races in the world, you haven’t failed if you haven’t won them.
“So I’m happy, I’m comfortable in Team Sky, and I’m looking forward to the year. I think I’m the most successful world champion since Tom Boonen was in 2005 at the beginning of the year. That’s okay,” he insists.
Wearing the rainbow jersey, plus his high rate of converting his presence in any final sprint into a victory means that Cavendish is now a marked man, something he acknowledges.
“This is the first year that I’ve consistently felt that it’s not about someone winning, it’s about me not being there, it’s just how it is. A bit of bad luck can cause something to happen, as in Gent-Wevelgem.
“Milan-Sanremo, I’ll never ever be able to explain what happened that day. You get one little bit of bad luck and it will be taken advantage of but it doesn’t matter, it means that if teams are doing that, it means I’m doing something right somewhere else, I’m winning stuff, which is what my job is.”
Days after winning Milan-Sanremo in 2009, Cavendish said that he wanted to come back and repeat the feat while wearing the rainbow jersey. He went into last month’s race as a solid favourite to do just that, but with around 100 kilometres left to ride his race was all but over as he was dropped on the climb of Le Manie.
“I’ll never be able to explain it,” he reflects. “I was in the best form of my life. I wasn’t on it that day. It’s easy for an uneducated person to go, ‘Oh look, Cav can’t climb,’ but I’m not the first guy dropped in bike races, there’s loads of guys dropped before me. It’s just the TV cameras are always on me.
“Compared to other big names I can’t climb, not compared to other bike riders. But I was the last rider over Le Manie, there was a problem there, something inexplicable. Not just the last of the favourites, but the last of the riders.
“I can’t explain it, I don’t know why. It happened. Apparently everyone’s told me, that happens, it shows we’re not machines, these things can happen.”
So did that ‘jour sans,’ as the French put it – ‘a day without’ – play on his mind? “It did for three days, then I rode in Waregem [the Dwars Door Vlaanderen], and I was a bit nervous there. I said to the guys, ‘Don’t race for me today, because I don’t know how my form is.’
“I was fine apart from the crash, which was when we were going easy at the end of the race, but I was angry because I think I could have raced there. So for
three days it preyed on my mind, then you get on with it.”
Next week, Cavendish heads to Switzerland and the Tour de Romandie, although he says he is there just to build up fitness ahead of the Giro d’Italia, with the main emphasis for the team, which includes both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Frome, being the GC.
The Giro itself appears to offer plenty of opportunities in the first half of the race for the Manxman to add to his haul of seven stage victories in the first of the year’s three Grand Tours.
“We’re going with a team that has a lot of fast guys, a lot of guys that can go well in a sprint. There’s more than the two sprint days there were last year, there’s six, so we’d like to win those.
“We’ve got a couple of good climbers there, but we’re not going with any GC ambitions, any real jersey ambitions, but we’d like to win as many of the 21 stages as possible.
“We’ve got a good chance in the team time trial, we’ve got a strong team there.” The second half of the Giro this year is focused on the mountains, but Cavendish says he hasn’t yet made a decision about whether he might leave the race early, saying, “I haven’t set a number of days yet, we’ll take each day as it comes.”
Cavendish is asked what he thinks of the performance of the man who is unarguably the star performer of the opening months of the 2012 season, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen. His reply reflects the respect of one professional at the top of his game for another.
“He’s incredible. There’s no other word to describe him this year except. How strong he is strong, how he’s pedalling, how he looks, it’s more than impressive, it’s awe-inspiring.”
Before he began winning Grand Tour stages, Cavendish was already a world champion on the track, winning the Madison with Rob Hayles at Los Angeles in 2005, and he would add a second title with Wiggins in 2008.
Reminded of Great Britain’s successful world championships in Melbourne this month, an event in which three of his Team Sky colleages raced – Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh, all of whom will join him at the Giro d’Italia – Cavendish says: “I was delighted with what I saw, especially the endurance guys, they were incredible.
“Ben Swift was unlucky in the points race but in the scratch race he made it look like he was the only bike rider there, that was impressive stuff. The endurance guys, they were really good, it’s just a shame there’s only two events and one of those isn’t a real event at the Olympics this year.”
Cavendish is clearly thrilled with being a father after partner Peta Todd gave birth to their daughter Delilah Grace earlier this month.
“It’s incredible. You didn’t realise you could have so much love for something, she’s so beautiful, she’s so good, the more she’s getting her features, I see me in her more.”
Some of the infant’s attributes, however, are definitely from the maternal side. “She hasn’t got my little short legs, she’s got her mum’s long legs,” he laughs, adding: “She does frown like me, but that’s alright – keep the boys at bay when she’s older!”
He maintains that fatherhood, rather than taking the edge off his racing, will give him even more incentive to win races.
“I haven’t raced yet, obviously, but it’s made me more determined,” he explains. “It could be so easy to stay and look at her and cuddle her, but I want to give her the best life possible. It’s not just about me and what I achieve now, it’s about providing the best life possible for my girl.
“It doesn’t take your motivation or focus, but it does change the reason behind the motivation or focus. It’s no longer your own trophy cabinet, it’s about a lot more. So it doesn’t change any motivation but it might change the reasoning behind it a little bit.”
While the new arrival in the family may have changed Cavendish’s life in some ways, he’s still getting the same rest as before. “She wakes up maybe once a night and even then doesn’t stir me. I room with Bernie Eisel, and if I can sleep through his snoring, I can sleep through anything,” he jokes.