Michael Mørkøv: The brains behind the operation

Michael Mørkøv talks to Rouleur about his career, navigating the personalities of bullish sprinters and why he’s so good at what he does

This article was originally published in Issue 128: Tour de France Hommes before Mark Cavendish secured the record-breaking 35th Tour de France stage win. Support Rouleur today by becoming a subscriber

“I’m like, what the fuck was that? It was the first time in fucking three weeks that he didn’t stay on my wheel. He passed me to go on the wheel of Van Aert instead. He got himself boxed in, I couldn’t help him and he didn’t find a space to sprint. I was disappointed, and really angry.”

The corners of Michael Mørkøv’s eyes twitch when he talks about the final stage of the 2021 Tour de France. For the last 30 minutes, the Dane’s voice has barely wavered, his demeanour remaining unequivocally calm. As he remembers that day, and we all know the story, when Mark Cavendish failed to win his 35th Tour de France stage to round out a fairytale comeback and make that elusive record his own, an edge of frustration creeps into his tone. Mørkøv believes that his leadout on that infamous afternoon in Paris was near perfect, as it had been during the other four stages Cavendish had won for Deceuninck-Quick Step in that Tour. He thinks that it was the Manxman’s choice to not remain on Mørkøv’s back wheel which killed the dream.

“I already told him that I wanted to be in position seven and eight around the last corner, it was perfect with him in my wheel. I thought, now we are going to take that record and it could not be more beautiful than on the Champs-Élysées, with five stage wins and with the green jersey. And just at that moment, he passed me inside by the Place de la Concorde. It was a pity,” says Mørkøv.

It’s human nature to search for meaning in traumatic or disappointing events. Like during a bad break-up or when grieving loss, some solace can be found in believing that everything happens for a reason. Mørkøv says it was this mindset that helped him put the frustration of coming so close to making history and ultimately failing to do so behind him.

“I met him later in the evening after that stage and he came over to me and was actually crying. He was so, so sorry,” explains Mørkøv. “When something bad happens, you always try to find a reason for it. Now, three years later, all this has happened and I’m back with Cav and at Astana, I think maybe that was the reason for it.

“If he’d have won that stage, we wouldn’t be here. There would be no record to chase.”

* * *

Michael Mørkøv’s earliest memories of cycling are from within the walls of Copenhagen’s velodrome. He talks about the smells, the tastes, the sounds and the colours of the six-day races he used to watch there with his father as a child. It was the organised chaos, as well as the mind-bending skill of the riders which got him hooked.

“I think every kid looks up to their dad,” says Mørkøv. “Mine was never an athlete himself, but loved to watch the Copenhagen Six-Days which were huge in the 1980s and 90s. We always followed the results and he took me there at a young age, when I was nine or ten, and I was so amazed by it all. I started cycling because of that.”

It’s on the wooden boards where Mørkøv’s heart lies. That early exposure to Madison racing during the six-days helped the Danish rider to become an expert in the discipline – he has won the Copenhagen Six himself on seven occasions, become Madison world champion three times and won Olympic gold in Tokyo alongside his partner Lasse Norman Leth [né Norman Hansen]. The Madison requires skill, control and tactical awareness, which is why Mørkøv is so good at it.

“On the road, I didn’t have that strength like the other kids but on the track, I was good with my technique. I don’t think I was born with a huge physical talent but I compensated with whatever I could around me,” explains Mørkøv.

“I was always well prepared and well trained, I knew each race and had tactical and technical skills. You see the opposite sometimes with huge talents coming who are strong when they are young, but they never learn how to race in a proper and a smart way. When they get to the highest level, they aren’t so skilled in races. Clever riders really manage to get everything out of their talent.”

If you train your eye to follow Mørkøv in the closing kilometres of a bunch sprint, his innate ability to read a bike race is clear. Cavendish and others have, plenty of times, referred to him as the best leadout man in the world. Mørkøv can find gaps where none appear to exist; he has the bravery to wait and wait until it almost looks too late for his sprinter. His timing will have fans screaming at the TV and sports directors biting their nails. The final metres tick down and still Mørkøv waits. Yet he almost always gets it right.

“I don’t think I really studied to get good at leadouts, but I was always passionate about the sprints. On the track, timing is everything – if you hit the front too early or too late, you don’t win. This background has helped me a lot,” says Mørkøv. “Also, I’ve done about 50 professional six-days, and every night in a six-day race you will have 10 or 15 times that you sprint for the finish line. If you add that up, you can imagine how many times I’ve been in a decisive sprint, compared to a road rider who has been in a sprint just 20 or 30 times in a year. On the track, you get the chance to fine-tune and know your bike and yourself.”

Despite a professional road career that is in its 20th year and has been shaped by dedication to others, the 39-year-old has, on occasion, experienced the top step of the podium on the road himself. Of the Danish rider’s five professional road victories, the biggest is a stage of the 2013 Vuelta a España where Mørkøv won a frantic bunch kick to the line, catching the remnants of the breakaway in the final throes of the race.

“I still feel like I got a bit lucky that I won that stage in the Vuelta, but as a pro rider it’s a big box ticked to win a Grand Tour stage,” says Mørkøv. “That helped with my confidence. I came to the conclusion that I could become an average sprinter myself, winning smaller races in smaller teams, but I realised my ambitions were higher than that. I wanted to win stages in the Tour and the Classics, being in a big team in the biggest races. I realised I could not do that myself.”

It was during the 2016 season with Team Katusha, when he was paired with Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff, that Mørkøv realised the potential he had to build a reputation as a leadout rider. “I became pro on the Danish Saxo Bank team which was focused on the GC at the Tour de France. Everyone was trying to be selected for the Tour by being a super skinny climber, so I never worked on sprints at Saxo Bank. I was trying to be something I wasn’t,” he says. “I’ve only been working on bunch sprints since 2016 when I joined Katusha, and sometimes I think that’s a good thing. If I’d been in that designated role since the beginning of my career, I might have run out of spirit for the last few years. I’ve had different sequences in my career.”

2015 was a year of change at Saxo Bank with Tinkoff joining the team as a new sponsor, and Mørkøv explains that this felt like a sign that his time at the Danish outfit was over. At the same time, Kristoff was in the prime of his career at Katusha, winning the Tour of Flanders and Scheldeprijs.

“He was the winningest rider of all and he was a good friend of mine. He asked if I would be happy to join him and I didn’t immediately think I would be a leadout man, but I wanted to sign up to help him win races. I was very motivated that winter and that’s when I started my latest profession,” says Mørkøv. “I remember Kristoff asked me if I wanted to go with him to his new team when he decided to move on from Katusha and I agreed. In my mind, I was doing the rest of my career with him, we had a super relationship and were working well together. But in the end, he went to UAE and couldn’t get me in, he didn’t pull it off. This happens quite a lot when people try to follow each other to a new team.”

Mørkøv’s ability to help riders to victory meant that when he was up for contract at the end of his time with Katusha, Quick-Step Floors were keen to bid for his signature in 2018. The Belgian team had four sprinters in their roster at the time and within the first three months of Mørkøv being with the team, he’d won a race with three of them.

“It was kind of outstanding, because not many guys succeed with different sprinters. I was usable in many different team line-ups and with different sprinters, so it was not just me working with one, but they could put me wherever they had a good chance to win.”

Many have put Mørkøv’s success as a leadout man down to his ability to stay impressively calm in hectic situations. He also exhibits confidence without arrogance, giving his sprinters a subtle self-belief that they have the ability to win.

“I have the feeling that’s actually what a sprinter needs when they’re nervous. I can be there calming them and helping them focus on doing the job,” says Mørkøv. “When sprinters win, they put more faith in me and that builds my confidence in them, too; it goes two ways. With the different sprinters I’ve worked with, some guys need a lot of mental support. Like, it will be positive for them to be told during the race: ‘You look very good today.’ With others, I had to hold back a little bit because they were overconfident. I think I had a good eye for whatever my guys needed.”

During his first years with Quick-Step, Mørkøv explains he worked well with Italian sprinter Elia Viviani. With both riders having a background on the velodrome, their similar styles made it easy to follow each other in the peloton. In two seasons of the pair riding together, they secured eight Grand Tour stages. Mørkøv went on to work with riders like Sam Bennett, Cavendish and Fabio Jakobsen, helping them all to the biggest victories of their careers. He admits, though, that despite his own amenable personality and emotional intuition, it hasn’t been easy with every rider he’s worked with.

“Of all the guys, Fabio was the one who was most difficult for me to work with, which was a bit odd, and it still annoys me a lot,” says Mørkøv. “Because I really like Fabio from my heart, and I also know that he really likes me – we have a very good connection as people. It’s just in the race we could not connect, and we didn’t achieve what we’d hoped for together.

“It’s a two-way thing, but I don’t think Fabio ever took full advantage of me and my capacities. Other sprinters I worked with, they gave me the feeling that they could not do it without me, I was the golden ticket for them, they stuck to me like glue. But Fabio is a bit of a different character in that he has huge confidence he can win himself, which sometimes put me a bit out of place. When he was in his first years, he trusted me more blindly than he did towards the last years we worked together. It’s kind of sad, but in the end he was just not a good match.”

Jakobsen isn’t the only rider that Mørkøv has struggled to work with in the past. Their achievements together on the bike wouldn’t show it, but the Danish rider explains that the relationship between himself and Cavendish was also tense initially when the Manx sprinter was first called up to ride the 2021 Tour for Deceuninck-Quick Step after Sam Bennett was removed from the team’s selection.

“In 2020 and 2021 when I raced with Sam, we had an amazing pairing. We won so many races together. It was only at the last moment that I was put together with Mark for the Tour and he actually annoyed me so much,” admits Mørkøv.

“I could not handle him and he could not handle me. We are opposite characters and we couldn’t connect. We won a stage in the Tour of Belgium together and then actually I came home to my wife and thought thank God, at least I don’t have to see him any more. I was fed up with him. Only a few days later I got the call and said they had substituted him with Sam and I was devastated. I thought, fuck, I can’t handle him for three weeks.”

Mørkøv points to a meeting that he and Cavendish had in a hotel room just a few days before the 2021 Tour de France was due to commence as crucial to the success they went on to achieve that year.

“When he arrived, I went straight to his room and I said to him, look, it’s really difficult for me to work with you. I feel you mock me, you make fun of me, you make bad jokes, I don’t find them funny. I don’t like the way that you behave, but I really believe that you can win a stage here and I really want to help you,” recalls Mørkøv.

“Of course, he shows his feelings more than me and in that moment I could see his feelings in his eyes. He told me that it was never his intention to do this, and it just came across wrong. In some ways I also think it’s my fault, I don’t think he felt secure in my environment, he felt I was judging him.

The conversation between the two riders is described by Mørkøv as a “game changer”. According to the Dane, Cavendish hasn’t said a bad word about him since that day, even at his very lowest moments.

“On the very, very hard days in the mountains where he was suffering, he was screaming at everybody else except me,” says Mørkøv. “I think we have a huge mutual respect. Even now sometimes he tries to mock me a little bit, but he stops really quickly, because he knows that’s not my style.

“I absolutely love him today. I love to work with him. My feeling today when he gets over the line is basically just that I’m smiling. I’m laughing at him, knowing him, knowing his reactions, because he’s quite easy to figure out actually, when you put all the cards on the table. I told him my feelings that day, he told me his and we just clicked.”

The four stage wins that Cavendish ended up taking in the 2021 Tour de France put him as equal record holder with Eddy Merckx for the most stage victories in La Grande Boucle. He came so agonisingly close to his 35th on the Champs-Élysées that year, but eventually finished in third place on the final stage when Wout van Aert took victory.

In 2022, Cavendish was left out of the Tour selection for Quick-Step, and told many that he planned to retire at the end of that season. Then, a last-minute contract with Astana Qazaqstan and another chance to go to the Tour kept Cavendish in the peloton last year, but he eventually ended up brutally crashing out of the race on stage eight, breaking his collarbone. The dream of 35 stage wins (or more), however, remained intact. Cavendish still sees Mørkøv as a crucial piece of the puzzle to making that dream come true.

“I heard at the finish of the Tour last year that Cavendish was out of the race and it made me a bit sad, because it would have been a nice story for him to get the stage win,” says Mørkøv. “Then the day after he crashed, my phone was calling and his name was displayed. I was like, I know exactly what he’s going to ask. I picked up and I said to him, I know what you’re going to ask. And he was like, yeah, you’re gonna come. He said, I’m filled up with morphine and painkillers, but I am making a list of the dream team I can have for next year – I really want to try again. I was honoured that he called me and I felt like he was a rider I could do my best for and increase his chances of winning.”

With both riders close to 40 years old, the 2024 Tour de France really seems like Cavendish and Mørkøv’s last chance at getting the storybook ending they are yearning for. Cycling has changed so much and the sport always evolves, but somehow, against all odds, the Astana Qazaqstan duo being at the pointy end of bunch sprints is still a constant. Their combined experience and the positive environment in their current team gives Mørkøv confidence that even against this new generation of sprinters, a stage win in this year’s Tour is possible.

“I’m a realistic person, but also I’m an optimist,” he says. “Seeing Mark on Astana compared to Quick-Step is different. I always felt that he was not himself on Quick-Step because there was always this huge in-house competition. In Astana, I see a much more whole person. He’s more confident and happy, because he’s the star here.

“Everybody supports him, there is no discussion about the programme and he’s the highest priority. He gets basically whatever he asks for: he asks for support, he gets support, he asks for training camps, he gets everything. I have the feeling that he feels really appreciated, which just makes him in a very good state of mind mentally, so I’m confident in him.”

The saying goes that the greatest lessons you can learn in life are born from failure. It seems that, as Mørkøv himself believes, the fact that Cavendish failed at achieving his 35th stage win three years ago has made both him and Mørkøv more determined than ever to make it happen in 2024. They may not be the youngest riders in the peloton, or have the best power numbers, but they have a skill learned on the wooden boards of the six-days: they know how to race – properly. Mørkøv believes that this is a weapon more valuable than most realise.

“I still feel that even if I’m not as fast or as strong as the younger generations, I have my role to play in bunch sprints. What I enjoy so much about cycling is that while it has become more about physics and aerodynamics, I still see myself surviving with whatever I have. People can’t just come and be stronger and kick you out. It’s a huge tool to be experienced.

“Imagine all the guys who came and were supposed to be the ‘new Cavendish’. He’s held them all off. He’s still there winning races, even without having absolutely great power numbers. This says everything about how sprinting is much more than just numbers. That’s where my passion for it comes from: it’s about making the right decisions at the right moment.”

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