Faster than a speeding bullet, the ‘Manx Missile’ – reigning road race world champion, Tour de France green jersey and BBC Sports Personality of the Year Mark Cavendish – turns 27 today.
That’s right. Mark Simon Cavendish was born in 1985, the year in which Bernard Hinault won the last of his five Tours de France. He was barely two months old then, in the month which also saw the Live Aid concerts and the launch of the original Back to the Future film. [Thanks for making me feel old – Ed.]
It’s fitting that Cav is wearing the world champion’s rainbow stripes this year, because he always brings colour to a sport in which riders are increasingly PR-sanitised. Speak to him immediately after a stage and – like many other sprinters – you will get a blunt, heart-on-sleeve answer. As a result, he’s not exactly everybody’s cup of tea: you either love him or hate him, there’s no middle ground. But no matter what, Cav always gives good quote, as this selection from Sky TV’s Mark Cavendish: Sprint King interview last December illustrates:
On being a perfectionist:
Perfection is perfection – and everything below perfection is not good enough.
On his love of cycling:
I love it, I absolutely love it. The day I stop loving it is the day I’ve got to retire.
On what it feels like in the final kilometres of a stage:
It’s almost like Rain Man-ish. I remember it photographically. Every sprint I do I can remember. Not even just remember – it’s as if I’m doing it in slow motion. You’re tunnelled out. Nothing else, nothing that’s going on around you matters. You see the gaps, you see the movement, you see where you have to go.
That’s indicative of the kind of guy Cavendish is off the bike: thoughtful, analytical, obsessive about split-second details – and surprisingly shy. On the bike, however, he is a raging tornado with a ravenous appetite for victory which can tip over into anger when things don’t go his way. You may recall him throwing his toys out of the pram when an inattentive spectator on the road to Canterbury caused him to crash at the 2007 Tour. Or his hasty withdrawal by his team from the 2010 Tour de Romandie when he gave a one-fingered victory salute to the media for perceived excessive criticism of his early season form.
That whirlwind of nervous energy – and his ability to channel it – are a key part of what makes Cavendish the rider he is. Small for a sprinter, he cuts an efficient aerodynamic profile and can generate a burst of sustained acceleration over 200-250 metres which is unparalleled. When Cav contests a sprint, he tends to win – and on those rare occasions when he is beaten, it is notable enough to be a big story.
That astonishing finishing burst helped him claim the ‘Sprinters’ Classic’ Milan-San Remo in 2009, where he hunted down Heinrich Haussler in the final 100 metres:
Then there are the Grand Tour stage wins – 33 to date – with 20 coming in the biggest race of all, the Tour de France, where he has won the showpiece Champs Elysees sprint three years running. His first in 2009 was memorable for the domination of his Columbia-HTC lead-out train (for me, the finest exponent of its kind ever seen):
His 2010 victory is brought to life by the side-on shot on the finishing straight. One second you see Thor Hushovd opening up his sprint with no one in sight, and the next thing you know Cavendish is flashing past in a completely different gear:
And then, of course, there is the moment he regularly describes as the proudest moment of his life, when he earned the rainbow stripes at last September’s world championships (start at about 5:20):
And that’s the thing about Cav: while others pad their palmares with victories in lesser races, he keeps his powder dry for the big ones where he is mightily efficient at putting his rivals into their place. In each of his four participations at the Giro he has won multiple stages. He took three stages and the points jersey on his Vuelta debut in 2010. And at the Tour he has 20 victories in the last four editions (at least four each year), and finally bagged the green jersey in 2011.
It was that elusive combination of green and rainbow jerseys which saw him become only the second road cyclist (after Tom Simpson in his world championship year of 1965) to be voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 2011. In typical Cav style he won by miles, polling four times as many votes as the runner-up, golfer Darren Clarke.
But don’t just take it from me. Here’s what roommate, ladies’ favourite and budding comedian Bernhard Eisel has to say on what it’s like to be Mark Cavendish’s teammate:
Happy birthday, Cav. Take the time during what is also the Giro rest day to pause and blow out the candles, eh?