Mark Cavendish has revealed that he was diagnosed with depression as he struggled to overcome the Epstein-Barr virus that effectively put his career on hiatus for the past two seasons.
Speaking to Matt Dickinson of The Times in a video interview from his home on the Isle of Man, the 34-year-old said that his mental health issues had put him in a “dark” place, but added that he is now “on the other side.”
Cavendish was first diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis, or glandular fever, in April 2017 after experiencing “unexplained fatigue” during training.
Since then, the once-dominant sprinter has recorded just one win on the road, at the Dubai Tour in February 2018.
“It’s not just been my physical health which has been dealt a blow over the last couple of years,” he said. “I’ve battled quite hard with depression during this time. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in August 2018.
“I didn’t take any medication. Like, this isn’t the time or place — we’ll do a thing on it at some point — but I received help. I was dark. And I’m on the other side, thank you. Well, as much as I can be. I think I’ve come out of that. And it’s nice to have come out of that. And to look for the positives.”
Cavendish joined Dimension Data in 2016 and that year won four stages at the Tour de France, with victory on the opening day in Normandy putting him into the yellow jersey for the first time in his career.
With his career total of stage wins at the race now standing at 30 it only seemed a matter of time before he eclipsed Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 victories at the Tour.
However, the following year, he crashed out of the race following an incident at the end of Stage 4 that saw rival Peter Sagan disqualified.
In 2018’s race he finished outside the time limit on Stage 11 in the Alps at La Rosiere, although he rode on, alone, to complete the stage despite knowing he had missed the cut.
Last year Cavendish, who had blamed Dimension Data’s medical staff for mismanagement of his condition, was left out of its squad for the Tour de France altogether.
So it was no surprise when he moved on at the end of the season, signing a one-year contract with Bahrain McLaren.
The switch sees him reunited with one of the men who has had most influence on his career, team principal Rod Ellingworth, Cavendish’s long-standing coach at British Cycling who masterminded his world championship victory at Copenhagen in 2011.
Ellingworth said: “His form is not like 2016 but he’s getting there. That season was phenomenal. If that was ten out of ten, he’s somewhere like seven at the minute.
“He came to us one or two out of ten, that’s physical, mental and the passion for it. So he’s progressing really well but he just wants to race.”
Cavendish himself seems enthused by his new team and not just because it sees him working with Ellingworth again.
He said: “I’m a fan of motor sport. When you’re a kid, the thought you’d be racing for McLaren, it blows my mind.
“I still have to rein in my fan boy attitude sometimes but I just love what it’s all about, the attention to detail and obviously the people understand that philosophy. That’s why Rod is such a good fit.
“Rod has an incredible ability to lead people and understand what makes them tick. If he had said before as my boss, ‘You need to jump’, I would say, ‘How high?’ And it’s nice to know that he’s not just getting you to jump for his ego, for the sake of doing it. There’s a genuine reason to help you. I’ve been places where they say ‘Jump’ just because they can.”
While some pros are taking to virtual racing to keep their competitive instincts honed – Greg Van Avermaet won a “lockdown” edition of the Tour of Flanders yesterday – Cavendish, never one to focus on the numbers such as power output, revealed that he is not a fan of the format, explaining: “I’m f*cked if I go on e-Racing because I race on tactics.”
Working in an ultra-competitive environment where every performance is scrutinised and which demands long absences from home and family, a number of professional cyclists have opened up about their own mental health struggles in recent years.
Among those to speak up is world time trial champion Rohan Dennis, who revealed in a podcast with his new Team Ineos colleagues Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe in December that it was mental issues and the pressure he felt under from his former team, Bahrain-Merida, that led to him abandoning last year's Tour de France midway through a stage.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.