Through tears and a choking voice, Mark Cavendish showed the emotional and introspective side of his personality Thursday — a softer, quieter side to the 25-year-old Manxman that is often overshadowed by his brash and outspoken exterior.
With his stage 5 win in scorching heat at Montargis, Cavendish lifted the burden of a difficult spring campaign that yielded only three wins and ended with his controversial role, and response, to a field-sprint pileup at the Tour of Switzerland in June.
Though he won six Tour de France sprints last year, and four the year before that, at this Tour’s first two field sprints Cavendish crossed the line both times with his head hung low.
In Brussels the HTC-Columbia sprint star tangled with Lampre’s Mirco Lorenzetto 2km from the line, missing a right-hand turn, and crashed. In Reims Wednesday, Cavendish started his sprint too early and was swarmed, finishing 12th. Italian Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre won both.
After stage 4 Cavendish threw his bike, and then his helmet, his green jersey campaign all but over, and his chances for a sprint win growing slimmer by the day.
Pundits jumped on Cavendish, claiming he wasn’t the rider of one year ago — physically, or mentally. He might have crashed on his first field-sprint opportunity, but he’d been flat-out beaten on his second.
That all changed on stage 5 when Cavendish and his lead-out man Mark Renshaw passed the Garmin-Transitions lead-out train with 500 meters to go. From there Renshaw perfectly delivered Cavendish to the line, where he easily beat out German Gerald Ciolek (Milram) and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky).
On the podium and well into his post-race interviews Cavendish was overcome with emotion, breaking down repeatedly, often burying his face in his hands to bury the tears. After the stage VeloNews asked him about the burst of tears.
“We’ve got an incredible sport here,” Cavendish said. “And I know why I started this sport. I started this sport because I love it. I train because I love it. I want to win because I love it. The problem is, when you start winning, all that other stuff comes. And it’s kind of hard to ignore. You say ‘I’m just going to carry on loving it.’ But when there are bad things said about you … okay, maybe I give people reason sometimes to say bad things, or think bad things, but it’s kind of hard. I mean, I’m only 25. And you kind stop enjoying it … especially things like yesterday. Finally luck was on our side yesterday, and I let the guys down.”
Although Cav’s exaggerated on- and off-the-bike antics are nothing new, in the past two seasons they were backed by a greater number of wins than he’s registered this year. His 2010 season has been a combined frustration of fluctuating form and controversial stage finishes.
Cav’s season start was delayed because of dental problems, leaving him unable to defend his Milan-San Remo title from 2009. Things picked up at the Tour of Catalunya with a stage win, but the momentum never developed. In late April he won a stage at the Tour of Romandie, but after a rude two-fingered gesture at the finish line his team management pulled him from the race. Cav won a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, but was also beaten by lesser names such as Francesco Chicchi and J.J. Haedo.
Then, at the Tour of Switzerland in June, Cavendish’s bad-boy reputation took flight when he was blamed, and heavily criticized in the peloton, for causing a spectacular finish-line crash. The next day the peloton staged a go-slow start to protest Cavendish’s erratic riding.
“It’s not been the easiest year, but I said back in January that it was going to be a hard year up to the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “But the Tour de France is what matters. It has been unlucky, the first days for us. But now that we’ve won one, it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop here. We’ve got an incredible group of guys here, and we’ll be going for wins. But it’s nice to finally get a win.”
After removing the monkey from his back in Montargis, Cavendish was candid in his assessment of the personal journey he’s gone through this year, dating from his brilliant 2009 Tour through a tumultuous 2010 season.
“I started this sport because I love it, it means everything in my life,” he said. “And the more you love something and the more you do it, the better you get. On one side of the coin you get the positives from that (success) and your feet lift off the ground and you kind of float on a cloud. I learned a big lesson not to get on that cloud. People pulled me and I came down very, very hard. And it hurt.
“But I had an incredible group of people around me, an incredible family, an incredible group of friends and an absolutely once-in-a-lifetime team,” he continued.
“They helped me up and helped me recover. I’ve learned a big lesson, and I’m so happy I have those people around me. I want to thank them for sticking by me the whole time.”
Asked what had gone differently Thursday than on Wednesday — when the team missed Adam Hansen, Renshaw went a little early, and Cav’ didn’t have the legs — Cavendish said he’d simply stuffed up the sprint.
“It’s hard to get to sleep when you don’t win,” he told VeloNews. “I went over it all night. You go over and over in your head, all the possible situations, and fundamentally I didn’t have it yesterday.
“It was an uphill finish,” he continued. “I remember with 1km to go being in my (13-tooth cog), and knocking down to my 12, and thinking this is good, and then thinking, maybe it’s too good, I’ve got my 11. And when I went into my 11, I remember thinking, maybe it’s too big, but I should be okay it flattens off. Whether or not I had been in my 12, if I’d been able to carry on, I don’t know. Petacchi was incredibly strong. You just have bad days, it’s as simple as. That’s what happens in bike racing, it was a bad day, and I didn’t have it. I’m sorry for the guys, they delivered me perfectly, and I couldn’t finish it. That’s bike racing, you can’t win all the time, but it’s kind of hard now that it’s big news when I don’t win rather than big news when I do win.”
During the daily stage winner’s post-race press conference, which is video-conferenced into the Tour pressroom, a Associated Press journalist asked Cavendish a question that was both simple and complex: “You’ve been labeled a bad boy, even by the French minister of sport, and we all saw the pileup at the Tour of Switzerland. But are you simply misunderstood?”
The pause between the journalist’s question and Cavendish’s answer was painfully long. After 10 seconds, it was awkward, after 20 seconds, it was uncomfortable. By 30 seconds, it was comical, and right before he answered, at 40 seconds, most had begun to wonder if he would answer the question at all.
“I think there’s no fire without fuel,” Cavendish said, in a heartfelt response. “I think if you put fuel on the fire it can be other people that waft it to get it bigger. I believe that’s what has happened. A lot of people want to judge my personality on 30 seconds of what they see after a bike race. I’ve come to realize that the special people around you, love you for who you are. If someone is so ignorant to dislike me without knowing me, they’re not worth worrying about what they think anyway.”
The problem with Cav’s answer is that everyone — fans, journalists and other riders — are watching his every move, and his every word, closely.