‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was possible’ - Mark Cavendish and the perfect goodbye

The Manx rider starts the Tour de France optimistic, reflective and calm

Mark Cavendish is about to start his 15th Tour de France, but his eyes have the same excited glint of a rider making their race debut. Facing a room full of journalists, the Manxman flashes a genuine grin at the cameras trained on his face, his knees jolting up and down and his hands fidgeting in his lap. His mannerisms are reminiscent of excitable children on Christmas morning. The Tour is about to begin, and for Mark Cavendish, starting the biggest bike race in the world is the best gift he could ask for.

Whether he will win his 35th stage and break the record he currently shares with Eddy Merckx is the question most people want to ask, but no one does, because Cavendish doesn’t like that question. That’s because winning, for him, isn’t the sole reason he does all of this. In the purest and simplest form, Cavendish loves cycling. A stage win at this Tour de France would be the cherry on the cake, but getting to race at all is already filling the 39-year-old with enthusiasm and zeal.

“I love the sport and always have loved everything about it, especially this race. It's quite beautiful starting in Florence. I lived here for 10 years.” he says. “Training on the roads I used to during my career and starting here and then going into France, it’s perfect. On an emotional level, it’s really nice, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Still, Cavendish is a born racer and he’s acutely aware that he’s here with a job to do. Huge amounts of money, time, planning and effort from himself and his team, Astana-Qazaqstan, have gone into getting him to the Grand Départ this year.

Sitting next to Cavendish as he fields questions from the media is Astana team boss Alexandre Vinokourov, and the bond between the pair is clear. There’s a sense of admiration from Cavendish towards the 50-year-old: “You worked hard to put all this in place for us, didn’t you?” he says with a genuine, grateful smile. It’s fair to say that Cavendish seems at home in Astana, and this is something that will be crucial to his success at the Tour this year.

“They’re brilliant boys,” Cavendish says of his teammates. “We’ve put everything in place. I didn’t want any excuse, so every component was a factor of me continuing for another year. The last few years before here, I had to earn a place at the Tour de France and that messes up your preparation. You don’t ride with the boys you’re going to go there with and it’s kind of a strange thing. In this team, we’ve worked, raced and trained together all year. We play cards, and we sit together for an hour after dinner. The longer a team sits at the dinner table, the better the team they are. I couldn’t ask for anything else from this team.”

It is Cavendish’s long career which has spanned almost two decades, that has allowed him to understand how to create environments which work for him to perform in. When Cavendish rode in his first Tour in 2007, this year's youngest rider, Magnus Kulset, was just three years old. In a peloton where the stars are getting more and more youthful, the longevity of the Manx rider’s career is an achievement in itself.

“People have for many years tried to take anything away from what I do, but the thing I am very proud of is how long my career has been. The longer you do something the more ups and downs there is going to be. Fundamentally if you can do something that long, that’s something I'm proud of and I'm fortunate to have had great support for that to happen,” Cavendish explains.

The collective experience of the Astana line-up for this year's Tour – including Michael Mørkøv who is regarded as one of the best lead out men in the world – is reflected in their race style. The duo of Cavendish and the Dane know exactly how to move together in a sprint finish with the sort of instinct that can only be learnt from practice. This is something that instils a sense of confidence in Cavendish that a stage win this year against a younger generation of sprinters is possible.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think it was possible,” he asserts. “Our job is to try and win. Realistically, there are five or six chances. It’s hard and it’s up and down, but we come here and we have everything in place that we can do it. So we’ll try.”

Whether this year’s Tour de France will be certainly Cavendish’s last is yet to be fully confirmed by the Manx rider, but there is a sense of emotion and self-reflection in his answers which implies he understands that the closure of his racing career is near. While his team and stakeholders, and plenty of fans, are dreaming of Cavendish breaking the record and rounding out his time in the peloton with a neat fairytale ending, the man himself wants to stress that his achievements amount to something bigger than just statistics on results sheets.

“I said before I started my career, if I could ever be in a book of names of riders that meant something, I’d be happy. As I’ve grown up and had children, you see they’re inspired by their sport and life heroes which changes your perspective on your position as a sportsperson,” Cavendish says. “I grew up idolising some bike racers and I've got to race some of those people and got to know them and they made a significant impact on me as a bike rider. If my children meet any pro bike riders and he or she is nice to them as a person, you see the difference in how they are. I understand that I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can inspire a few generations. That’s what is important.

“At this race, I don’t have anything to lose, it’s not like playing roulette. If I don’t win here, I won't lose 34 stage wins,” he continues. “I own the most stage wins of the Tour de France alongside the great Eddy Merckx. How many more doesn't matter.”

Rachel Jary

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