Enjoy this chapter from At Speed: My Life in the Fast Lane by Mark Cavendish. In his second book, the Manx Missile details what it took to become the winningest Tour sprinter ever, examines the plan that led to his world championship victory, reveals the personal toll of his sacrifice that helped teammate Bradley Wiggins become the UK’s first-ever Tour de France winner, and confesses his bitter disappointment at the London Olympic Games.
“Dave, I’m going to win the worlds tomorrow.”
Dave was Dave Millar and I was already the world champion in my own imagination. It was midafternoon on Saturday, September 24, 2011, and we’d just watched Giorgia Bronzini from Italy win the women’s world championships road race on a TV in our hotel room. Before Bronzini, the previous day, a 20-year-old Frenchman named Arnaud Démare had taken the men’s Under 23 race, and before Démare, Lucy Garner of Great Britain had been the first of the junior women to cross the line.
Rod Ellingworth, my coach and the British team’s that week, had stuck his head out of the car window and broken the good news about Lucy while we, the senior men, were on a tough final training ride. When Garner had got back to the hotel where the whole GB squad was staying, I’d been with an old teammate, the Swede Thomas Löfkvist, tinkering with my bike, but stopped to applaud Lucy as she walked in. As I clapped, my eyes had wandered toward the rainbow stripes of her new world champion’s jersey—then I’d quickly averted them out of superstition. That jersey—maybe the most sought-after in professional cycling, more than even the Tour de France’s yellow jersey—was one thing that Bronzini’s race, Démare’s, and Garner’s all had in common. Another was a course circling a leafy suburb to the north of Copenhagen. And another was the way that the races had all ended: in a sprint. Twice could be coincidence, but three times was a pattern.
I turned in my single bed to face Dave. “Dude, I’m going to fucking win this. We can’t lose.” Dave later told me that this was the moment when he knew as well. No sooner had I said it than I was already diving between gaps on a finishing straight tarmacked across my mind’s eye, already ducking for the line and feeling the elation of victory hit me like an ocean wave. I’d been complacent about winning races before in my career but I’d also, gradually, learned the difference between healthy and unhealthy confidence: one energized and sharpened your instincts, your muscles, even your eyesight in the race; the other dulled, muffled, and slowed everything. This was definitely the first kind.
Almost a year earlier, I’d gone with my old mate and HTC-Highroad directeur sportif, Brian Holm, to take a first look at the course. Brian is just about the best-connected man in Denmark and also the fourth-best-dressed according to GQ (though I’m not so sure). We’d done a lot on that trip besides ride our bikes, but the time we spent doing loops of the circuit with donors to Brian’s cancer charity convinced me that this wouldn’t be another Melbourne.
The Australian city had been the venue for the 2010 worlds, which had taken place a few weeks before my visit to Copenhagen. Melbourne had not gone well. I was coming off a successful 2010 Vuelta a España, having won three stages and the points jersey, and I was flying. Therein lay the problem and the excuse I gave myself for pushing too hard in pre-race training sessions that were intended to put the icing and a cherry on my form. I thought I could win it, but my overzealousness in training jeopardized my chances in the race proper. Dave, one of only three British riders who had qualified for the race, knew I was overdoing it, as did the rest of the team and the staff, but it took that mistake and the resulting, massively disappointing performance to teach me what proved to be an absolutely vital lesson.
All week in the run-up to the Copenhagen race, the atmosphere in the British camp had been fantastic. Everyone was rallied around the same cause—namely, making sure that the peloton was bunched together as we came into the last 200 meters of the 266 kilometers, whereupon it’d be handed over to me. It was a measure of my confidence, not only in the nature of the course but also in the guys, that I could only foresee one outcome.
The evening before the race, Brian came to our team hotel. I was getting my massage when he arrived, so Brian chatted to Dave and Brad Wiggins while he waited.
“I saw the races today. You’re going to win this, aren’t you?” Brian said when I finally appeared.
“Yeah, I am. I’m going to win,” I told him.
Brian paused. “Shit, I’m nervous.”
Nervous, I think, was the wrong word. I think he meant that he was excited. Brian always says that when I’m sure I’m unbeatable, as I was that day. It’s been the same ever since we met at the Tour of Britain in 2006, when I was a mouthy, 21-year-old stagiaire—cyclingspeak for an amateur getting a tryout with the big boys—and he called me a “fat fuck” for disobeying his orders to get to the front midway through the very first stage.
Over the years, Brian had become a kind of father, brother, and mentor. I was lucky to be rooming with another one of those that week in Dave. There are some riders, like Brad, who will always room alone given the choice, but it drives me absolutely crazy. If a roommate goes home early from a race or training camp, I’m climbing the walls within hours, pestering the management to be put with someone else.
Dave and I woke to sunshine the morning of the race. We ate breakfast, got ready, and then climbed onto the bus. I was quiet—quieter than usual. I rarely get nervous because I keep my mind too busy. Sudoku, logic puzzles, visualization. All full gas. Every pro bike rider trains his legs but very few train their minds, the only muscle they use to make decisions in races. It mystifies me; the more you keep your brain active, the more it’s whirring away and the less likely it is to get sabotaged by the kind of anxiety that can cause mistakes and compromise a performance.
Winning the worlds, and before that ensuring it finished in a sprint, was also a logic puzzle that needed to be solved. To help us, in the days leading up to the race, we’d spoken to other teams who also had strong sprinters and might therefore want the same kind of finale—the Americans, the Australians, and the Germans. They’d said they’d give us a hand, but we all knew that the main responsibility would fall to the team with the fastest sprinter, unanimously acknowledged—namely me. For that reason, it was better that we were prepared to lead the race for all 266 km, something that for any other team would be an impossible task, but that this one was going to relish. It took a special group of guys to achieve that; there would be no personal glory for my teammates, only sacrifice for the benefit of a rider who, for most of them, was an opponent in every other race of the season.
That was the inherent contradiction of the worlds: For one day, arguably the most important of the cycling season, allegiances to trade teams—companies to whom riders owed their livelihoods—were set aside in the name of patriotism. This was why a lot of national federations, though not British Cycling, put up a sizable bonus to be shared among the riders in case of victory; it was compensation for what those guys would have given up.
Before we’d got off the bus, I’d said it one more time: “If we do everything 100 percent right, we’ll win this.”
It was the kind of thing that’s said on every team bus by every team leader or directeur sportif before every race. What we did over the next six hours would determine whether it was cliché or prophecy.
The world championships road race generally follows a familiar pattern: A relatively large break of unfancied riders goes up the road early, the speed in the main group settles, and the major cycling nations—Italy, Holland, Spain, Belgium, and so on—share the pacemaking to ensure that the breakaway’s advantage doesn’t become irretrievable. When it’s brought back—which it usually is, with between 20 and 50 km to go—the serious, potentially race-winning attacks begin. It may seem like a counterintuitive way to operate, but no team can control a race from start to finish, and certainly not a world championships road race. Or so everyone had thought.
For the first 28 km from Copenhagen to the circuit in Rudersdal—where we’ll then complete 17 laps of a 14.3-km loop—we don’t lead. We’re also happy to let the usual move—harmless, we hope—clip off the front shortly after reaching Rudersdal and the start of the circuits. By then, though, we’re in complete command, with Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas pouncing on any break that’s too strong or too big and could pose a threat to our plan. When we’re finally happy with the group that has formed, our red and blue jerseys mass to the front and Britannia rules. And rules for the next five hours.
The experts have been saying ever since it was unveiled more than a year ago that the Copenhagen course is a simple one, but simplicity and subtlety shouldn’t be confused. There’s no such thing as a bike race whose secrets and nuances I won’t try to understand and master. Here, for instance, every time we approach the biggest hill on the circuit on the first nine laps, I’ll start at the front with my minder for the day, a 37-year-old veteran called Jez Hunt. I’ll drop my chain into the small ring and we’ll drift back into the belly of the bunch as we tap up the slope; that way, I can afford to climb more slowly than everyone else in the bunch, in an easier gear, yet still find myself in the middle of the peloton at the top, when we start the only real headwind section on the circuit. I’ll then move back up and reposition myself, with Jez, behind the puddle of blue and red British jerseys on the front.
For 60 km the gap to the seven out front keeps rising, but it’s rising on our terms, only as much as we’ll allow. At Melbourne a year ago, I knew within a few kilometers of the start that I didn’t have the legs to finish the race, let alone win the jersey. Today, however, I’m floating. I see riders steal a glance at my thighs, humming over the top tube, and I imagine alarm spreading through the peloton: Cavendish is on one of those days. Two riders who for the rest of the year are teammates, Lars Bak and Kanstantsin Sivtsov, ride alongside me, look down, and repeat what I have been saying for the last 24 hours, what Brian said and Dave had thought but kept to himself: “Cav, you’re going to win today. You’re going to be world champion.”
The laps tick by. Steve Cummings and Chris Froome are on the front; behind them are Dave, Gee, Brad, Stannard, and Jez, my babysitter. Radio contact with our team cars isn’t allowed at the worlds, so information about time gaps is relayed to us on blackboards twice every lap. Our team staff can communicate with us the same way from the pits, where we can also pick up drinks and food. At one point the blackboard tells me that I’m too far forward and need to move back. I ignore it. If I’m supposed to be my team’s leader, I’m staying with them.
Eight laps to go. Seven. The gap to the early break is shrinking now; Froomey and Steve are slowly reeling them in, two Trojans.
Countermoves are starting to develop, but they’re quickly extinguished, stifled by our pacemaking. Six laps to go and we get our first big scare; the French rider Blel Kadri crashes, others pile into him, and the peloton suddenly splits. This is why you ride at the front, because pretty much everyone behind the bodies, including the defending champion, Thor Hushovd, has to stop. On a fast course like this one, with us driving, they won’t see the front of the race again. Gee—Geraint Thomas—is our only rider caught in the mess, but he manages to untangle himself and miraculously rejoins our train. Like I said, it’s a scare, a warning, and perhaps a sign that today our luck is in.
With five laps to go, a counterattack joins the 7 who went away early on, so now they’re 11 with a two-minute gap. It’s a big group, under normal circumstances a dangerously big group, but we’re still playing this race like a computer game and have got everyone right where we want them. Froomey and Steve have done their work and will pull off in a minute, and then it’ll be Jez’s turn on the front. Dave will come after Jez, and Brad will come after Dave. On the last lap, Brad will then hand over to Stannard, who’ll come before Gee, whose job it is to position and launch me in the sprint.
The attacks are coming in flurries now, but we’re irresistible, inescapable. On the climbs especially, my heart is pounding against my rib cage and I’m clenching my teeth so hard that I’ll break one of them and need dental surgery in two days. It’s all bearable, though, because I’m being whipped along on a magic current created by my teammates. It’s the perfect microcosm of my life as it stands in September 2011: the ups and downs that I’ve endured over the past two years, more criticism than some riders face in an entire career, some of it deserved; arguments with my team and my manager; personal problems; health problems; historic successes and intermittent but devastating failures. A lot of it I’ve kept to myself. I’ve ridden the bumps in the same way that I’m surviving this course today, thanks in equal parts to my resilience, or rather my bloody-mindedness, and the support of some exceptional people. If anything is in danger of overwhelming me today, it’s pride.
The same emotion swells when I see Jez pull off and Dave take over with two laps to go. Then, just as we catch the remnants of the early break, the French rider Thomas Voeckler counterattacks and is soon joined by the Dane Nicki Sørensen and the Belgian Klaas Lodewyck in probably the most dangerous move of the day so far. Dave drapes his hands over the middle of his bars and clicks into time trial mode to keep us within striking distance. Voeckler is a top rider, but this is desperate stuff now. Back in the peloton, resignation spreads like gangrene: This race will end in a sprint, just like we said and wanted, and Mark Cavendish is going to win.
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