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Mark Cavendish bouyant ahead of the World Championships

Mark Cavendish interview
Mark Bailey
15 Sep 2015

We spoke to Mark Cavendish about training, race preparation and why you shouldn't write him off at the 2015 World Champs.

Mark Cavendish has won 26 individual stages of the Tour de France, he’s been invited to lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip, and his friendship circle includes fashion designer Sir Paul Smith and business magnate Lord Sugar. But despite his high profile, Britain’s superstar sprinter still trains with amateurs when he returns to his beloved home of the Isle of Man.

The idea of Mark Cavendish training and joking around with local weekend warriors feels a bit like Wayne Rooney heading to a Cheshire park for a kick-about with his local Sunday League team. Cavendish is, after all, a global cycling megastar whose stage wins at the Tour de France place him third in the list of all-time stage-winners, behind only Eddy Merckx of Belgium (34 stages between 1969 and 1975) and Frenchman Bernard Hinault (28 between 1978 and 1986).

Cavendish is one of only five riders in history to win the points jersey at all three Grand Tours, after his triumphs at the Tour de France in 2011, the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and the Vuelta a España in 2014. When he won the prestigious World Road Race Championships in 2011, he became the first male British cyclist to pull on the famous World Champion rainbow jersey for 46 years.

‘When I was training as a kid, I never really felt like I was training – I was just pretending I was Johan Museeuw [the Belgian who won the Paris-Roubaix one-day race in 1996, 2000 and 2002] racing along the cobbles whenever I was sprinting to the nearest road sign,’ explains Cavendish, who splits his training between the different terrains around his three homes in Tuscany, the Isle of Man and Essex.

Mark Cavendish Nike sponsorship

‘I still do it. When I am training, I imagine I am racing. I can actually feel the sensations of the race – the speed, the feeling in my legs, everything. Sometimes I like riding by myself and other times with friends. I have just been training with my friend Cal Crutchlow [the MotoGP rider] in Tuscany. I still like to have fun when I’m out. I will want to try new roads, and think: I wonder what’s up there?’

The flat stages of Grand Tours such as the Tour de France are where Cavendish plies his trade, controlling his team for the majority of the ride before unleashing his sprinter’s power in the final 200-300m. ‘A sprint involves a full-gas effort when you’re already at your limit,’ he explains. ‘Don’t forget we have to ride for 200km before we even get to the sprint, and we have to keep the pace high to make sure it finishes in a bunch sprint. This idea that we do nothing until the final 200m is complete rubbish. In the last 20-30km we will be putting out a huge effort just to get to the finish.’

Built to last

Cavendish is a different physical specimen from his more muscular sprint rivals. At 1.75m (5ft 9in) and 70kg, he is 13cm (5in) shorter and 12kg lighter than German sprinter Marcel Kittel, who won eight stages of the Tour de France in 2013 and 2014. Other sprinters such as the German Andre Greipel, the Norwegian Alexander Kristoff and the reigning Tour de France points champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia are all bigger and heavier – qualities that should give them the edge. But Cavendish has secret weapons.

‘I don’t put out anywhere near as much power as the other guys but it doesn’t matter,’ he explains. ‘I pedal around 10 per cent faster and I am more aerodynamic.’ Whereas sprinters typically accelerate at a cadence of 120rpm, Cavendish is able to sprint at 130-140rpm. And although other riders can hit a peak power of 1,800 watts, Cavendish sprints at 1,400-1,500 watts but can maintain that effort for longer. ‘The aerodynamic part is natural – I have always been able to get low on the bike because of my size, which reduces my frontal area, so I haven’t really worked on that. But the other elements are things I have worked on and a lot of it comes from training and racing on the track [the indoor velodrome] when I was younger.’

Mark Cavendish wins sprint, 2015 Tour de France

Cavendish prepares for every sprint in forensic detail. He uses Google Maps to check the surface of the roads and analyses overhead helicopter footage. ‘I’m not the only one who does that but I was probably the first. Now everybody does it. I use Google Street View because you can basically walk the roads you will be riding in the sprint. You can see what the road looks like, how wide it is, if there are Catseyes in the middle of the road, how fast you might be able to take a turn or a roundabout – things like that.’

During a hectic sprint finish Cavendish can clock speeds of 75kmh. In those frenzied final moments he has to make quick-fire decisions on when to launch his attack, which wheel to follow and which gap in the chaotic tangle of bikes to aim for. In this environment, composure becomes as important as power. ‘I have been racing bikes since I was a kid so now those processes are instinctive. Remember when you first learn to drive? You have to think about everything, don’t you? About holding the clutch and pressing the accelerator and looking in the mirrors. And now you just drive; it all happens automatically. It’s the same for me in a sprint. I am still learning and I always encounter new situations, but the basics are there without me having to think.’ Cavendish’s detailed preparation is legendary.

World championships

Of all his career achievements, Cavendish’s victory in the World Road Race Championships 2011 in Denmark remains one of his most precious memories. The win was part of a masterplan called Project Rainbow, created by Rod Ellingworth, British cycling coach and current head of performance operations at Team Sky. After months of detailed preparation, Cavendish, helped by a stellar British team that included Bradley Wiggins, David Millar and Geraint Thomas, claimed a dramatic sprint victory in the final metres to become Britain’s first male World Road Race Champion since the late Tommy Simpson in 1965.

Mark Cavendish portrait

‘I still get goose bumps when I talk about that win,’ says Cavendish. ‘I was part of a great bunch of riders who really committed to the cause, and I had grown up with a lot of the guys so that made it even more special. Rod Ellingworth put so much time and effort into planning it. The way we controlled the race throughout… I don’t think anybody has done it like that before. I don’t reflect on many wins because I prefer to look forward, but I do think of that.’

Cavendish is now turning his attention to the 2015 World Championships in Richmond, USA, on 27th September. The prospect of repeating his world title triumph and earning the right to wear the famous rainbow jersey once more fills him with excitement.

‘I have had a look at the route and it’s an easy course physically but difficult tactically, so it’s hard to know what to expect,’ he reveals. ‘I don’t think I would be favourite by any means and I wouldn’t want eight team-mates riding for me, but I have the chance to win. Next year the World Championships are in Qatar, which is definitely a good one for the sprinters so I believe I can go there and win. To win the world title for a second time would be a huge honour. Britain is really growing as a cycling nation and if I can carry on adding to this country’s success, I will.’