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One of the first things you notice when you meet Mark Cavendish is how softly spoken he is. Arriving at the airport as we head out to Ibiza for a weekend of riding with high-end cycling/foodie destination company LeBlanq, who offer what they describe as ‘curated breaks for the cycling gourmand’, the 34-time Tour de France stage winner slips into the back of the crowd at the boarding gate unnoticed. As other passengers jostle trying to get ahead in the queue, Cavendish looks out from under his cap and quietly says, “Hello.”
Later, as we sit on a sun-soaked terrace looking out to the sea, I ask him if that shyness is something which surprises people. “Maybe,” he replies. “People take a perception of my personality based on what they see on TV. When you’re talking after a period of exertion – in my case, a race – you’re going to get different responses.” Is he an introvert? “Yeah...I wasn’t always,” he admits. “I had some issues a few years ago and I’ve lacked a little bit of confidence since then, I guess. Like, you lack the confidence, a little bit, of being who you are.”
Cavendish is referring to his personal struggles with mental illness, of which he has spoken openly in the past. In August 2018, he was diagnosed with clinical depression. It followed a tough period for the Manx rider, who’d been battling fatigue after having suffered from the Epstein-Barr virus in early 2017. There was also a string of injuries: the infamous Sagan incident at the 2017 Tour de France, crashing out at both the Abu Dhabi Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico the following season and a horrendous crash into a bollard during the final kilometres of Milan-San-Remo that left him with a fractured rib, bruising and abrasions.
While he’s spoken about his experience of depression candidly in past interviews – and has expressed his desire to raise awareness of the topic – Cavendish admits that talking about his mental health can put him in a “dark place” for a couple of days. Not wanting to push him towards that, I say we can talk about anything he wants and there is no desire to press him on anything he’s uncomfortable with. “You know, I really appreciate that,” he says with genuine sincerity. “I mean, like you saying that, it’s human.”
Being frequently asked to analyse himself is something Cavendish is used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, he stresses. “I’d rather be honest than just recite something. I know a lot of sportspeople do that: they just say what they think people want them to say and that’s not fair for a fan.” But laying yourself out there and digging deep into your psyche can wear you down, he acknowledges.
“I’ve analysed myself because...I get asked about it. That’s the only way I can compartmentalise it,” he explains. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not a normal thing to do and it almost takes you out of it. They forget you’re a human. To do that, you’re an object that has to describe why they do something. I think when you look deeper than just on the surface of someone saying, ‘Why do you do this?’ it’s actually quite...” he pauses, trying to find the right words. “It can be quite draining, you know? Quite intrusive...no matter how innocent it is.”
He’s quick to point out that he understands it comes with the territory of being a professional athlete and he’s not complaining. Rather he’s trying to explain. He’s trying to give a glimpse into his life and mind. He sits forward and gestures towards me: “Imagine someone asked you every day to analyse your own personality and what you do.” It would take a real toll, I reply. “But it’s my job. I have a good life, it’s part of the job, so I do it.”
It’s been a surreal few days during which Cavendish and I catch up. LeBlanq have laid on sun-drenched rides around the party island of Ibiza, which have been dotted with cortados at beachside cafes and glasses of juicy fresh lemonade at Calvin Harris’s organic farm. Rumours that one of the Chemical Brothers is cycling alongside us in the LeBlanq group have turned out to be true, while our final night brings out Pete Tong (a keen cyclist himself) for an intimate, and very sweaty, DJ set. Cavendish, perhaps embracing his inner raver, bounces up to the decks and waves his hands in the air with a huge grin as he dances alongside friends and TV cycling presenters Matt Stephens, Adam Blythe and Orla Chennaoui, who also happen to be on the trip.
To note that Cavendish is a complex individual is possibly the least ground-breaking observation to offer up, but it’s an important one to keep in mind. Often in media coverage, Cavendish has been depicted as moody, brusque and impatient, and while there may be truth to that, he’s also generous, funny and far more approachable than you might at first think. Get him talking about a subject he enjoys and he’ll happily chat away, smiling and engaged. But on the flipside, you quickly know when you’re edging towards a topic he’d rather not get into. Assume you know what he’s thinking and he closes up; ask a foolish question and the bluntness emerges. But again, tell him about your latest achievement, however small, and he’s full of encouraging praise. Don’t take yourself too seriously and he cracks a grin.
But Cavendish isn’t wasting time over what people think of him. Putting it in a characteristically Cavendish way, he says, “Sometimes you think it’s not fair that someone doesn’t understand who I am, but then you think if someone is going to comment on your personality and they don’t know you, it’s probably not worth caring about what they think, anyway.”
Cavendish is more than familiar with drowning out negative commentary. After he’d had a run of disappointing seasons following health issues, crashes and not making the cut-off on stage 11 of the 2018 Tour de France, some wrote off the former world champion. But as his friend and former GB team-mate Blythe has put it in the past: “As soon as you write him off, that’s when Mark bounces back.”
LeBlanq is the brainchild of Justin Clarke, a former professional cyclist and founder of the Taste of London food festival, and Michelin-starred chef Ashley Palmer-Watts (formerly of Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck). The company fuses world-class dining with envy-inducing rides in beautiful locations.
In the UK, destinations have ranged from the bucolic Yorkshire Dales and Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Wight, while overseas spots, such as the Champagne region in France and the rugged backdrop of Norway have also played host to the brand’s mix of gastronomy and riding with cycling legends.
The roster of riders (Eddy Merckx, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Johan Museeuw) is as impressive as the chefs cooking the guests’ post-ride meals: Angela Hartnett, Tom Kitchin, Nieves Barragán.