Mark Cavendish has just been out on his bike. He went out on his bike this morning, he’ll be back out on his bike tomorrow morning, he went out on his bike this afternoon, and when training was over and he needed to get back to his hotel in order to do this interview, there was really only one method of transport that fitted the bill. The point – and admittedly, it’s not a particularly earth-shattering one – is that he loves riding his bike. Anytime, anywhere, anyhow. It’s his sanctuary, his freedom, his reason for being.
And so, while most of us conceive of professional cycling in terms of suffering – lung-busting sprints, brutal training rides, the tortuous mountain ascents of the Tour de France – Cavendish sees things differently. For all the sweat and pain he endures in the saddle, he knows from bitter experience that the real agony is not being able to ride at all.
Cavendish burst into our collective consciousness more than a decade ago, as the poster boy of British cycling’s golden era. Whereas the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton sought glory on the track, embracing a world of marginal gains, body-fat callipers and ultra-sensitive stopwatches, Cavendish opted for the romance of the road, winning classic races, such as Milan-San Remo in 2009 and the world championships in 2011. But his most cherished triumphs came in the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious cycling race, where he won an astonishing 30 stages between 2008 and 2016. “In the past, I felt like I could choose to win,” he says now from his hotel room in Belgium, with just a hint of wistful yearning. “We were that dominant.”
All of this on its own was enough to anoint him as one of the greatest sprinters of all time, and certainly one of Britain’s greatest cyclists ever. And as his career went into sharp decline from 2017 onwards, it felt as though the story of Mark Cavendish had already been written, the journey complete.
But Cavendish had other ideas. This summer, at the age of 36, he returned to the Tour in the unlikeliest of circumstances, winning four more stages to draw him level with the record of 34 set by the legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. The bare facts of this are impressive enough. But set against the context of a debilitating illness, a crippling bout of clinical depression, a public that had written him off and a sport that had largely forsaken him, it should probably go down as one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks of our time.
The first time I met Cavendish was in Copenhagen in 2011, on the eve of the men’s world championship road race. Back then, the boy racer had the world at his feet. Sponsors were forming an orderly line at his door. He was destined to be one of the stars of the impending London Olympics. And yet the man at the centre of this maelstrom was still essentially a boy from the Isle of Man: honed and hot-housed in British Cycling’s centre of excellence in Manchester, unaccustomed to fame, bewildered by all the attention he seemed to be attracting. Around that time it was common to hear the sentiment – from people who barely knew him – that Cavendish was a supreme bike rider, but not necessarily the sort of guy you wanted to spend too much time with.
“Imagine me as a 20-year-old,” he points out. “No media training, institutionalised, just thrust into the spotlight. But as a person, I’ve definitely grown up. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, that just changes you. And I’ve seen the opposite side of the life spectrum. It makes you appreciate what you have.”
Some things haven’t changed: the devilish smile, the deeply analytical mind, the sincere attempt to give an honest question an honest answer, an extremely low tolerance for bullshit. But in the way that time and tide soften us all, so it has been with Cavendish’s occasionally spiky public persona. He’s a family man now, married to the model and author Peta Todd, with four children and a strong sense of responsibility not just to his loved ones but to the sport to which he has dedicated his life. His success this year was greeted not with a grudging respect, but with an outpouring of genuine affection from cycling aficionados and casual fans alike: the crowning triumph of an athlete who has walked through hell and come out the other side.
You get the sense that even at his advanced years, Cavendish still feels vaguely bemused by all this. “It’s hard, because I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said of the reaction to his Tour success. “So when it came, it was beautiful. It feels so much more personable. My whole career, people have said ‘well done’. But now people say ‘thank you’. Thank you for what? Fucking hell. I’m proper touched by that.”
Part of the reason Cavendish’s tale strikes a chord with so many people is that he has had to battle through the same demons many of us face: ill health, self-doubt, the nagging sensation that on some level, the good times have gone. “The process of coming back, from not being able to walk to the bathroom, not being able to climb stairs, to going back to the Tour de France: everything leading up to this year makes a mountain stage piss easy, I tell you,” he says with a chuckle. “You learn what actual suffering is.”
But we should probably start at the beginning. And for Cavendish the beginning of this particular story comes in early 2017, when he started feeling an uncharacteristic fatigue while training. He was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, one of the causes of glandular fever, which left him bedridden for weeks on end.
“Some people never get better,” he says matter of factly. “I’d say it was two or three years before I didn’t think about it any more. It’s a coward illness. It comes when you’re stressed or run down.”
And Cavendish was both. The pressure of staying at the top after years of frictionless dominance was beginning to take its toll. To make matters worse, his condition was misdiagnosed for months. “I was told I was medically all right to train again,” he says. “And I wasn’t. I still had Epstein-Barr in my system and the only thing that’s proven to help is rest, pure rest. And I was doing the opposite, because I was told by medical professionals that I was fine. And then I stopped eating because then you have to get lighter, and it starts to mess with you. I developed clinical depression.”
And so began the next challenge. As a young cyclist, Cavendish had always scoffed at sportspeople who cited mental health concerns as an excuse for underperformance. Now, barricaded in his Essex home, the walls began closing in. “Before I had depression, I was one of those people who didn’t take mental health seriously,” he says. “I really thought it was an excuse. Snap out of it, what’s wrong with you? That’s why I feel passionately about talking about it now. It was karma that I got it. That mindset of thinking it’s an excuse is massively damaging. It doesn’t just not help people get better. It makes people worse.”
Every sufferer of mental health issues experiences them in a different way. For some it’s an intense, overpowering sadness, or a sort of chronic lethargy. For others it’s a form of paralysis, of constant external judgment. For Cavendish, depression expressed itself as a kind of photographic negative. “It’s nuts how fragile you get, how illogical,” he remembers. “You don’t think logically. You’re not in control. It’s not like you don’t care. You don’t care enough to think you don’t care. There’s nothing. It’s empty. I cannot put it into a visual image, because it’s the opposite of any visual image you can get. My family life suffered, my career suffered. I was struggling to get a contract. The kids were too young to understand, but it was hard for Peta, to be sure.”
While Cavendish’s life off the bike was falling apart, his career on it was taking a similar turn. In the 2019 season, for the first time in 16 years, he didn’t win a single race. He didn’t even make it to the start line for that year’s Tour de France, left out from his Dimension Data team after a bitter disagreement with manager Doug Ryder. For a rider widely considered one of the legends of the sport, it was a cruel lesson in the brutality of professional cycling, an unsentimental game in which you are only as valuable as your next prize cheque.
“Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says. “It broke my heart how many despicable people are in this sport. And just the world in general.”
By the end of 2020, it looked like Cavendish had finally run out of road. His new team Bahrain-McLaren decided not to renew his contract. Once again, he ended the year without a win. Even his most ardent supporters had given up hope and were now quietly urging him to walk away and leave his legacy intact. The phone stopped ringing. “People still wished me well, but they became fewer and fewer,” he says. “That was the hardest thing.”
With time running out to secure a contract for the 2021 season, his old team Deceunick Quick-Step threw him a lifeline, although it came with a few catches. He would be on a minimum-wage salary of about €40,000. He had to find his own sponsor. And, most crucially of all, the team already had a core of accomplished sprinters, led by the talented Irishman Sam Bennett. Cavendish would have to make do on a diet of smaller races in far-flung places, travelling on low-cost airlines and staying in budget hotels: no red carpet, no star billing, certainly no Tour de France.
Cavendish didn’t mind. After all, he was just happy to be back on his bike. “No matter what position I’ve been in, I was always the rider who they could call up and I would race,” he says. Gradually, he began to show some flickers of his old form. He won a few stages at the Tour of Turkey, his first wins in three years, and rode well at the Tour of Belgium. Still, it was only Turkey and Belgium. He still hadn’t beaten anyone of note. And even when a knee injury to Bennett allowed Cavendish an unexpected shot at the Tour de France, nobody seriously expected him to do very much. Well, almost nobody. “I knew I was back,” he says. “I felt like the old me. I knew I could be top again.”
When you’re a sprinter, there are maybe six or seven days of the Tour when the course is flat enough for you to realistically win the stage. The rest of the time you’re simply surviving, hauling yourself up seemingly endless mountain climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, trying to stay within the strict time limit. (Finish too far behind the race winner and you’re out of the race, as Cavendish himself discovered in 2018.) “It’s just suffering,” he says. “It’s horrible. There’s no reward except the chance to do it again the next day.”
Those passages are perhaps the most harrowing parts of Cavendish’s new book, Tour de Force, which chronicles his comeback Tour in unstinting, granular detail. The most interesting are when he takes us into the middle of the professional peloton, its rivalries and tactics, the stress and the shoves and the ever-present threat of a disastrous crash. Cavendish has a freakish memory for detail bordering on the photographic. He still remembers every kink in the road, every bottleneck, the ideal line to take around every French roundabout.
Most of all, he remembers the wins. That first win, a bunch sprint into the Breton town of Fougères on day four, reduces him to tears. “It was like a weight had gone and I couldn’t stop crying,” he writes. “Everything that had happened in the last few years seemed to lift off me.” Three more wins follow, drawing him level with Merckx’s record, although he misses the chance to break it on the last day in Paris when he is narrowly beaten on the Champs-Elysées.
If there was a breathtaking efficiency to Cavendish’s early career, the ruthless raw speed of a man simply too good for the field, then there was a certain fairytale quality to his comeback: one of the feelgood stories in an otherwise grim year for humanity. Luck played its part; it always does. But equally, he points out: “I knew how sick I’d been. I knew where I had to come back from. I signed for minimum wage, found a sponsor for the team. That’s not the stars aligning. That’s me moving the stars into the right position.”
For the first time in a while Cavendish found himself not simply admired but loved, not that it really mattered to him either way. “To be liked or disliked is irrelevant,” he says. “In sport you have a character, a style, but it doesn’t translate to what you do as a person. You can fake it, and a lot of riders do. They play super-nice but they’re actually assholes. I’d rather be the other way round. I’d rather be proud of the guy I see in the mirror than the guy I see on TV.”
Cavendish thought about retiring at the end of the season, but he’s decided to push on for now, while the body still feels good, while there are still races out there to be won. Does beating Merckx’s record mean anything to him? “Nah,” he scoffs, and you believe him. Records, the cold accumulation of numbers and statistics, have never really moved him. Grievance – whether real or imagined – no longer acts as a source of fuel. “I’ve lost the desire to prove people wrong,” he says. His historical legacy, which always used to motivate him, has pretty much been secured: “in terms of what I can physically do on a bike, there’s nothing more I can do.”
So why does he keep doing it? Well, it all comes back to the bike. The thrill of pure speed. The promise of the open road and the wind against his face. “It’s the freedom,” he explains. “You’re not confined by an arena. You don’t have to go to a training venue. There’s no tee-time. You can leave your front door at what time you want and go for as long as you want, the speed you want, the distance you want. You can go out with someone or go out on your own. The world’s your oyster. That feeling is why I started it. And I still get that feeling.”
Tour de Force: My history-making Tour de France by Mark Cavendish is published on 25 November by Ebury Spotlight at £20