Book review: At Speed – Mark Cavendish

At Speed Mark Cavendish coverAmong his detractors and even within the peloton it has become popular to think of Mark Cavendish as an angry, emotional hothead who speaks before he thinks. And while that is undeniably one aspect of his character, the truth is rather more complex. Here is a genuine racer with an appreciation for both the art and science of sprinting, one who does logic puzzles and sudoku to keep his mind and not just his legs sharp, and who can be as thoughtful as he is opinionated. At Speed reveals every facet of the man known simply as ‘Cav’.

The man behind the reputation

Cavendish’s second autobiography picks up where Boy Racer left off, taking the reader through his 2010-13 seasons. The main focus is on the twin highs of his 2011 campaign, winning first the green jersey of the Tour de France and then the world champion’s rainbow stripes. But for all the elation that accompanies Cav’s victories – and they are many in number – the troughs between the peaks are addressed too, such as how a combination of vanity and an innocuous ice cream caused the abscess which derailed much of his 2010 campaign. There are also fall-outs with teammates, team staff and team owners – and even a mid-race punch-up with a Euskaltel rider – in the majority of which Cavendish is quicker to accept blame than to ascribe it.

People were surprised to see me pumping up [Isle of Man teammate] Andrew [Roche’s] tyres, filling his drinks bottles … but I had a fantastic time.
On staying behind after the Commonwealth Games road race to support his countrymen in the time trial

Behind the major glories, it’s the failures and the smaller races which reveal the most. His pride at riding in Isle of Man colours at the 2010 Commonwealth Games alongside a team of amateurs shines through, despite his ultimate failure to contest the medals. And the pain of Olympic failure, which goes beyond an unsatisfied desire for personal glory – it hurts.

In interviews Cavendish is well-known for showering credit on his teammates’ efforts. Where some top riders pay lip service to the notion of building a team, Cavendish exudes an ‘all for one and one for all’ ethos which shines through in this book as much as it does on the road.

He is fulsome in his praise for Mark Renshaw, Bernie Eisel and even members of Team Sky, with whom he endured a less than enjoyable campaign in 2012. So when he does vent his anger on someone – step forward Sean Yates – it is less a random, hot-headed blunderbuss shot than a cold-blooded surgical strike. There’s no doubt that he is a demanding leader, but this arises from a compulsive attention to detail rather than selfishness.

It sounds like a nice idea but it’s not going to work. Why? One word: ego.
On the idea of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process for past dopers

Throughout the book, you rarely feel that any of Cavendish’s views have been airbrushed or, conversely, built up to either avoid or deliberately provoke controversy. He offers honest insights which are simultaneously simplistic and yet original.

From his paranoia about the need for accuracy in reporting his whereabouts – including a frantic SMS update while attending Eisel’s wedding – to his frustration at being constantly asked questions about doping – how can he be expected to comment expertly about doping practices when the only drugs he himself takes are multivitamins and (legal) amino acids? – he offers explanations about how difficult life as a professional sportsman can be without ever asking for sympathy or forgiveness. I find that immensely refreshing.

As for his disappointing 2013 Tour de France, where he was outgunned by Marcel Kittel, he offers explanations rather than excuses for every defeat, even closing with a moment of introspective self-doubt where he wonders whether his younger rival might finally be the man to end five years of consistent domination. It’s a surprisingly downbeat coda, but one which humanises the man – the growing, maturing family man – behind the reputation.

A story with heart

Ultimately the joy of At Speed is the sense that, warts and all, this is the story of a rare sportsman. Here we have a man who is as passionate about his job as he is professional, and who isn’t afraid to speak his mind rather than trot out the banal, PR-groomed soundbites of so many of his peers. Even if that does occasionally land him in hot water. Kudos to Daniel Friebe for telling Cavendish’s stories in a voice which is recognisably the Manxman’s own.

Like the racer himself, what makes At Speed a winner is its painstaking attention to detail rather than the grand gestures. Check your preconceptions at the door. Even if you don’t like sprints, even if you don’t like Cavendish, this book speaks to both the heart and the mind of true cycling fans.

Rating: 9/10

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