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Ride like...Mark Cavendish

29 Sep 2016

In what’s been a turnaround year for the Manx Missile, we see what we can learn from the British sprint specialist.

One of the first Brits in recent times to strike it rich on the European stage, Mark ‘the Manx Missile’ Cavendish helped usher in a new age of British cycling. Turning pro in 2006, Cav won his first two Grand Tour stages at the Giro d’Italia in 2008, before going on to take four stages in that year’s Tour de France. Since then, he’s gone on to win 26 more Tour de France stages, World Championships on both road and track, and this summer achieved a lifetime’s ambition by adding an Olympic medal to his haul. Known for his explosive speed, we have a look at how the rocket man does it. 


Name:  Mark Simon Cavendish MBE

Age: 31

Lives: Ongar, Essex

Rider type: Sprinter

Professional teams: 2006-2011 HTC-Highroad; 2012 Team Sky; 2013-2015 Etixx-QuickStep; 2016 Dimension Data

Palmarès: Tour de France – 30 stage wins, Points classification 2011; Giro d’Italia – 15 stage wins, Points classification 2013; Vuelta a España – 3 stage wins, Points classification 2010; UCI World Road Race Champion 2011; British National Road Race Champion 2013; Milan-Sanremo 2009.

Train hard, ride easy

What? It may seem obvious but to be a top sprinter like Cav you’ve got to ride fast. ‘During sprint, I’ll be going up to 75 or 80kmh,’ he told us. Naturally, it’s hard for the likes of us to come anywhere close to that kind of speed in a sprint, but even the genetically advantaged Cav didn’t get that fast without years of training.

How? Interval training is a great way to increase your overall speed, as Cav explains: ‘I get to the bottom of a slight downhill, just rolling. I’m not pedalling much, just rolling at about 40kmh. Then I hit it, boom! I hit it, and I go 70kmh and I try to hold that for 300m. I always die. And it’s about dying and just trying to sustain that to 300m. If you can do over-distance, then you can sustain 250m, no problem.’ OK, so we’re not suggesting that you put in such superhuman efforts but if you follow the same principles, you’ll improve your performance. So try doing 5x 10-second bursts at 80% of your max effort, with 5 minutes of relaxed effort in between to give your body time to recover before putting it through hell all over again. By doing this, you’ll train your body’s fast-twitch muscles and optimise your fuel usage. So when it comes to the big day, your body will understand what you’re asking of it when you want to give it everything you’ve got. 

Know your limits

What? We all love a cyclist who goes out of their way to leave it out there on the road, giving it all they’ve got. What’s less cool, however, is when a rider gets that gamble wrong. ‘The worst ones are the guys who believe they’re fast, but they’re not,’ Cav told us. Racing in a bunch is dangerous at the best of times. With incredible watts being pedalled and insane speeds being reached, the slightest wrong move can cause a mass pile-up. Not knowing your limits can be hazardous. ‘It’s not just about being able to put out 1500 watts, its about doing that when you’re in the red zone, when your body’s at its limit,’ says Cav. And make sure you stay ahead of the bunch. ’You get naïve riders blowing up and dropping back through the peloton so fast they become bollards in the road,’ Cav adds. 

How? We’d all love to cycle like Cav, but while few of us will ever be able to get close to the speed he hits, we can at least absorb his wisdom. Knowing your limits isn’t about admitting to weakness but discovering where your strengths lie, and the best way to work this out is to join your local cycling club. Most clubs have several different group rides every weekend depending on riders’ ability levels. By going along for a few rides you’ll be able practise riding in a bunch and develop your ability to ride both certain distances and speeds. For more information visit

Get motivated

What? It’s tough to keep putting in big efforts day after day, so maintaining a high level of motivation is as important for the pros as it is for the rest of us. Brian Smith, former manager of Cav’s Dimension Data team (previously known as MTN-Qhubeka) reveals how he used to try to motivate the riders. ‘I introduced a three-letter word to the team last year,’ he told us. ‘And that word was “fun” – with the F standing for freedom. The freedom to do what you want.’ This season, Cav has certainly seemed to be enjoying his riding more than ever, taking more stage victories than in the last three years combined. But his true source of motivation comes from somewhere closer to home. ‘It’s for my kids now,’ he reveals. ‘I just want them to be proud. My daughter Delilah only knows if I’ve won if I’ve got her flowers. If I don’t win, she gets no flowers and is pretty pissed off!’ 

How? We’re all wired differently and our motivation comes from different sources – the desire to outdo rivals, the urge to improve on past performances, the need to impress a group, or work for a group, and indeed the need to enjoy our riding have all been identified as key motivators. So grab a piece of paper and write down all the reasons you ride, then put them in order of what’s most important to you. The one you put at the top of your list will be your chief motivator – use that to keep on keeping on. For more on this, see our Science of motivation feature.

Study your ride

What? For many pro riders, going over a race route is second nature. To see how the road shifts and bends, work out where a good place to attack is and where to take it easy are things that must be planned prior to any race. ‘The night before [a race], me and my lead-out man Mark Renshaw spend an hour or so going through the last 2km of a stage, making sure we know every corner and exactly where we can go,’ Cav revealed. It’s not just the road itself they survey, though. ‘Sometimes you don’t see the 200m markers,’ Cav explains. ‘But you may see a brightly coloured house and that will be the signal that it’s time to go for it’. 

How? Whether you’re doing a race or a sportive, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at the event’s website, which should show details of the route and its profile (ie where the hills are). If you can’t physically ride it or visit it beforehand,  another good tip is to use Google Maps to study it. ‘A few years ago, Google Maps came out, and we were the first guys to use it to check the route the night before,’ reveals Cav. So there you go – if it’s good enough for the fastest man on two wheels, it’s good enough for us! 

Get low

What? When Cav first burst onto the scene, sprinting was all about being the strongest rider. But although he’s not the most powerful man in the peloton, Cav’s compact build means he can slice through the air more easily than most of his rivals. ‘I always did it naturally, I don’t know if it’s because of the track or because I’m short-legged and long-bodied,’ he says, but whatever the reason, his physical ability to get extremely low on the bike means he’s reducing his front area and improving his aerodynamic profile so that he can go even faster when he pushes out serious wattage. ‘Keep low and you’ll accelerate a lot quicker,’ he advises. 

How? Getting low on a bike is easier said than done – we all have physical limitations and for some, flexibility is one of them. However, by increasing core muscle strength and working on increasing flexibility through yoga and stretching exercises, you can make sure you don’t put your back out when you’re powering ahead of your mates.

Pedal more

What? Cav’s power output in the final  200m is surprisingly low compared to his rivals. ‘I‘m on 1400-1500 watts, while others will be doing 1800-1900,’ he told us. ‘But I can pedal at over 130rpm whereas most guys will be doing 120.’ For Cav, maintaining a higher cadence enables him to sprint for longer, rather than just producing a quick surge.

How? To improve cadence, first work out your functional threshold heart rate (FTHR) – the maximum effort you can sustain over a hard, hour-long ride. Using a heart rate monitor, ride for an hour with several one-minute bursts of all-out effort. Your average heart rate over the hour will be your FTHR. Once that’s been established, you can use it on your next training ride to perform the following exercises: For the first 30 minutes, ride at around 60-70% of your FTHR, then push it to 80%. When in this zone, do five minute blocks of 80-100rpm, 110rpm, then 70rpm. Try to keep your heart rate at a constant 80% through the drills by adjusting your gears accordingly. Once you’re done, warm down for 15 minutes. This will help your body get used to pushing higher cadences at all levels.

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