This article was originally published in Issue 116 of Rouleur magazine in February 2023.
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-Sanremo 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.”
His comeback during the Tour de France 2021 was the stuff of cycling fairytales: having not won a Tour stage since 2016, he sprinted to victory on stages four, six, ten and 13, bringing his total of stage victories to 34. These four wins made him the joint record holder for stage victories alongside Eddy Merckx, and what those wins meant to him was written across his elated, tear-soaked face as he hugged his team-mates and members of the peloton after crossing the finishing line. Stunned viewers, commentators and journalists hurried to declare that Cavendish was back.
Whether he’ll be in the 2023 Tour, after a controversial omission in this year’s event, and if he’ll grab that coveted 35th win, are things he’s asked about on a very regular basis. At the time we meet, there’s also a lot of frenzied speculation about which team he’ll be signing with after leaving Quick-Step-Alpha-Vinyl. However, January this year, Cavendish announced he'd be riding for Astana Qazaqstan.
As expected, the topic of that 35th stage win comes up during a panel discussion put on for the guests of LeBlanq on the second evening of our trip. Cavendish, seated between Blythe clutching an espresso martini and animated host Matt Stephens, was joined by fellow cycling legends Johan Museeuw, who won a hat-trick of both Flanders and Roubaix titles, and three-time World Road Race Champion Óscar Freire. When it’s mentioned by Museeuw that on winning a 35th Tour stage, Cavendish would beat Merckx, the Manxman interrupts to say, “Do you know what bothers me, though? Everyone calls it Merckx’s record. It’s not Merckx’s record, it’s our record. I won’t break his record; I’ll break our record.” The resulting cheers show how invested his fans are in his legacy – they also passionately want him to prove the naysayers wrong – but it also gives a glimpse of the fiery persona that he’s so well known for.
That’s another thing about Cavendish: he’s all about the details. It’s been reported before that the 38-year-old rider is blessed with a photographic memory, but he doesn’t quite see it like that. Are you just really good at remembering details? I ask. “Yeah, I think so...I think that’s it. I don’t think it’s anything special. People say, ‘Oh, you have a photographic memory.’ I don’t have a photographic memory,” he scoffs. “I just absorb. But I thought everyone absorbs. It’s good to absorb, whatever you’re doing.”
Saying that, trivial things that he describes as having a more “passive” role in his life don’t get quite the same treatment. “Like, there are a lot of memories that my friends will ask me: ‘Do you remember this?’ and I don’t.” People can choose what to remember though, I suggest. “Yeah, I think subconsciously you really do. You’ve just explained it in one sentence better than I’ve tried to.” But then again, going over and over a memory can distort it, he proposes. Our chat is getting deep. He carries on: “It might change it a tiny bit every time [until] eventually you’re just remembering the memories rather than the actual thing.”
Commenting on Cavendish’s obsession with details, Stephens jokes, during the panel debate: “The thing I love about Mark…if you say something and it’s ever so slightly ambiguous, you’ll pick somebody up…but you’ll want to know the logic behind it. I love that.” Cavendish gives a light-hearted grimace and replies: “Yeah, but it can be hard sometimes, like.”
His love of puzzles has also been well documented. For the record, he has played Wordle, but not very often, dabbles in Worldle with his children and hasn’t heard of Nerdle. “I don’t sit and think, I need to do puzzles. It’s not like that, I just enjoy doing them,” he explains. His preference is for logic puzzles, such as Sudoku, and with ample time spent travelling it’s the perfect distraction when on aeroplanes.
Much has already been recounted about the origins of Cavendish, the greatest sprinter in modern cycling history: his early years growing up on the Isle of Man, his desperate thirst for racing that saw him loading his bike onto the ferry to go and compete on the mainland, his prodigious wins… “Growing up I was very competitive, but you just think everyone’s competitive,” he reminisces. “You don’t know that other people think differently to how you think.” He sits, pensive, against a soothing background noise of waves crashing on the beach. After a minute or so of pondering, he says: “Like, I can never understand why people don’t think the same as me. I just can’t get it…but there would be people who don’t understand why I don’t think like them. It’s not until you’re older that you realise that.”
It’s a topic that clearly fascinates him. He continues: “I’m sure if everybody thought the same as me on the bike it would make my job as a cyclist harder, wouldn’t it?” And perhaps a bit dull? He directs his gaze back, animated: “Yeah, exactly that. Really dull.”
These are the different sides to Cavendish that pop up during our conversation and over the days spent in his company. It’s not the first time we’ve met, in fact five years ago at the London Six Day, I told him offhand that he was my boyfriend’s favourite cyclist. When I followed it up by earnestly promising him I wasn’t just saying that, although he must hear it a lot, he burst into laughter. Now, during our time in Ibiza I see afresh the intense adoration he receives from his fans. As if to illustrate this point, a hotel guest comes up to Cavendish during our interview to ask for a video message for their young daughter. Without even a hint of annoyance or hesitation, Cavendish takes the phone, flips it onto selfie-cam, double checks the little girl’s name and beams as he records a message for her.
He again acknowledges that there is a somewhat exaggerated version of him that most people see, when they watch him on their television screens or hear him in post-race interviews. “Obviously, professional sport is entertainment,” he says. “It’s not quite like you play a character, but in terms of the sporting thing, it can put you in a different mindset than in normal life. I guess when I’m on the bike I’m a different person than in real life.
“But it’s helped me, you know?” he adds with a wry laugh. Certainly, Cavendish’s recognisable voice, personality and racing style are memorable, in the sport of cycling and outside of it. It’s all very distinctive, and it can be argued that these are some of the reasons for the longevity of his career and huge following.
Video recorded, we get back to the questions: is visualisation something that he uses? “Yeah, but I always did that anyway. I remember going to Steve Peters, a famous sports psychologist who worked with Great Britain. A lot of people went and the big thing was about visualising. But I always did it as a kid anyway.”
He corrects himself. “Well, not visualising. I didn’t think I needed to go and ‘visualise’,” he says, using air quotes. “I’d imagine going up the Champs-Élysées and sprinting. That’s what I’d do on my bike. That’s visualisation without being told you need to visualise. I just naturally did that.
“I was imagining being people, I was imagining being a pro and being in the races…it’s imagining your dreams, but it’s still visualisation.”
One of the people he’d imagined being was his fellow LeBlanq guest Museeuw, and he’d delve into how the ‘Lion of Flanders’ would ride on the cobblestones. This way of visualising could be confused with being a dreamer, he says, but he has justification: “It just makes sense because I’m a sports-person, but still every kid dreams.”
He refers to how his four-year-old son Casper rides in, out and around the house for hours a day. “He’s obsessed with cycling and he’s constantly talking to himself. He’s imagining a situation. He knows the riders; he talks about what they’re doing...he comes and tells me how his race just went. It’s an imaginary race but in his head it’s happened. That’s what I did; it’s visualisation.”
Cavendish and his wife Peta have recently welcomed their fifth child, a daughter named Astrid. How would he feel if any of his children decided to go into the world of professional cycling? “I’d support the kids in whatever they wanted to do. If they’ll put a commitment into work, then they have my full support,” he says, before adding: “They can always choose what they want to do. I never push them into anything. I never stop them doing anything. All I ever ask is that they work hard and they don’t give up – I think that’s the fundamental principle I have with them.”
We come back to the topic of the mind – the theme of this edition of Rouleur – and Cavendish has something important he wants to share. “Cycling isn’t just about being the strongest,” he stresses. “It’s about – like any sport – if you can get a psychological advantage. Without sounding like bravado, you need to be tough. You’re physically fighting and then you’re psychologically fighting.”
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.