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Tour de France

Mark Cavendish’s first coach: ‘I had seen a lot of youngsters, just never seen one like him’

Mark Cavendish is on the verge of setting a new all-time Tour de France stage win record. VeloNews spoke to his first coach to see where it all began.

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When Mark Cavendish worked in a bank as a teenager, all the older ladies wanted to be served by him.

Cavendish was working at the bank after persuading his mother to allow him to leave school at 16 and pursue his cycling career. He only worked there for about 18 months, until he was signed to the British Cycling Academy, but he proved a popular employee.

“All the old dears would come in and they all wanted to be served by him. It was incredible,” Mike Kelly, Cavendish’s first cycling coach, told VeloNews. “People would let others go first because they wanted to be served by Cav. He just got on with people.

“They would come in and be chattering away with him. He was a cheeky chap.”

Also read: Mark Cavendish looking beyond ’35’ and toward 2022 season

Kelly has known the “Manx Missile” since he was about 10 years old, before he started racing properly, and began training him soon after that.

Kelly remembers Cavendish had a lot of energy and would like to get stuck in with everything, including walking his dogs.

“We would always train on a Saturday morning, and I had two collies at the time,” Kelly said. “He loved dogs and he would ask ‘are we taking the dogs out this afternoon?’, I said, ‘yeah,’ so he came out with me walking the dogs on a Saturday afternoon after training and things like that. He wanted to sort of be involved all the time. And you know, that would take the tension out of building up to a race, but he loved my dogs.”

Cavendish has called Kelly, a stalwart of the Manx cycling scene, one of the biggest influences on his cycling career. When Cavendish won the world championships in 2011, he gave Kelly a signed rainbow jersey. The jersey is on Kelly’s wall, replacing a picture of his own hero, Eddy Merckx.

Kelly first met Cavendish when he was training at the Isle of Man’s national sports center, just outside the capital Douglas. He saw something in him from a very early age.

“From the start, he was a determined lad. When he started out, he had a big heavy bike, but he’d still battle away,” said Kelly. “I’d seen a lot of youngsters just never seen one like him, the determination in him was just unbelievable.

“He would train hard, very hard. You never had to say come on, get more done, more done. He was always there and always wanted to do it. Which is the best thing for any youngster. I’ve seen so many kids ruined within in cycling with the parents pushing them. That’s not right, they’ve got to enjoy it.”

Also read: Michael Mørkøv: The man making Tour de France history with Mark Cavendish

The long-time organizer of the Manx International Cycling Week – an event that attracted the likes of Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil Tom Simpson – Mike O’Hare also remembers Cavendish’s determination from an early age. O’Hare was at the 2003 Island Games in Guernsey when he saw Cavendish bounce back from a crash to take the criterium event.

“There was a pile-up with about a mile and a half to go and I thought that’s him finished,” O’Hare told Isle of Man local station Manx Radio. “Five minutes later, he came round the corner, flying through the bunch and he wins it. That showed at that particular time that there was aggression there and something good there. He was aggressive from the start.”

Cavendish’s determination and aggression had stood him in good stead as he’s sought to come back from his fallow years brought on by his battle with the Epstein Barr virus.

Sprinting for town signs

These days, Cavendish is known for his ability to remember his sprint finishes in meticulous detail. However, that memory didn’t extend to remembering to take his shoes to races on at least one occasion. How he overcame the lack of shoes has been lost to the mist of time, but it shows that even the best athletes in the world have their blind spots.

Over the course of his 34 victories at the Tour de France, Cavendish has also become known for the second kick in a sprint. Like a car changing into a higher gear, the Manx Missile often finds a second burst to get him over the line ahead of the rest.

Also read: Tour de France daily digest: Mark Cavendish or Eddy Merckx — who ya got?

It’s a skill that goes back to Cavendish’s time with Kelly when they used to sprint for town signs on the Isle of Man. Cavendish on his bike, and Kelly on his Honda 125 motorbike.

“The gallop he had as a youngster was impressive, I’d never seen before in anyone like it,” said Kelly. “I had a little Honda 125 that he used to train behind a lot. I used to train with the riders when they were younger but then he got quicker and quicker, and in the end, I couldn’t stay with him. But I always had the motorbike to do speed work and we used to work specifically on sprinting.

“If we were coming into a final sprint because when we were out on the road at certain parts we’d sprint for a particular sign. I’d wind the motorbike up and he’d come past me. You know, and then we’d have a big sprint at the end where I would take the motorbike virtually to flat out, and he’d come past the motorbike with a second kick. Yeah, that’s one thing we use is to really work on was that final kick and that’s what gets him a lot of his wins.”

While Cavendish has moved on to other coaches after turning professional, he’s kept a very good relationship with Kelly, who maintains a keen eye on the Manxman’s success. Kelly still believed that Cavendish could get back to winning ways but he never imagined that it would come to this, with the Manx Missile on the precipice of beating Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour de France stage win record.

The reaction and the buzz on the Isle of Man have been bigger than ever, so much so that Kelly has to give himself extra time to go anywhere as all his neighbors want to know how Cavendish is faring.

“I’ve never written him off and when he eventually got this place only the week before the Tour, I thought I reckon he’ll win a stage. I was quite confident he would win a stage. I wouldn’t have turned around and said he’s going to equal this record this year. It’s just blown my mind,” Kelly told VeloNews.

“The reaction seems more now than it was when he was up top before like. Even on Manx Radio, there were a couple of presenters saying because we’ve just had the statue of the Bee Gees there should be a statue of Mark Cavendish and we should have a statue for him for what he’s doing. All the neighbors know about me helping Cav and I can’t go out now and without people talking about Cav. All my neighbors talk to me every day and ask ‘what do you think? What’s going to happen tomorrow?’.