Tour de France 2020

Untold stories of the Tour de France: Suffering with Mark Cavendish

Few know how close Mark Cavendish came to not making it to Paris in the 2010 Tour de France.

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Climbing the Col du Tourmalet, Mark Cavendish slips out the back of the group. His loyal teammate, Bernhard Eisel, remains at his side and tries to encourage him.

“Big effort, Cav, come on, stay with the group.” Cavendish screws up his face. “Bernie, I can’t do it.” He is suffering a thousand agonies. He wants Eisel, his best friend, to shut up. But Eisel knows how critical it is that they stay with the gruppetto, the group that rides a shadow Tour de France in the mountains, out of view of the television and photographers’ lenses. For Cavendish, a prolific winner of flat sprinters’ stages, stages like this are the B-sides to his hit singles, songs that no one hears.

Today, the top of the Tourmalet is not the end of the stage; there is a fourth Pyrenean climb, the Col d’Aubisque, and then 60 km of flat valley roads to the finish in Pau. Manageable in a group, impossible as a duo. He and Eisel will almost certainly miss the time cut and be out of the race. Cavendish is ill, feverish, and in a desperate bid for marginal gains, he removes all extraneous items: sunglasses, food from pockets, even bidons. Still, Eisel cajoles him and Cavendish snaps, “Don’t nag! Just let me fucking ride,” he says. Fuck you, then, Eisel thinks. He could ride back up to the group and leave Cavendish to his self-pity, to stew in his petulance. But he doesn’t. He sticks to the task, which means sticking with Cavendish, but pointedly veers to the other side of the road.

On the ride up the Tourmalet, “together” but not together, Cavendish hugging one side, Eisel the other, shutting each other out, not speaking a word, sulking like a married couple.

Cavendish, who was enduring a difficult season after complications following dental surgery over the winter, was ill. He was coughing and feverish in the morning when his main rival for the green jersey, the Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, paid a visit to the bus of Cavendish’s team, HTCColumbia. Petacchi wanted to discuss how to ride the stage. With the climbs at the beginning rather than the end, and that long run-in from the Aubisque to Pau, it was more complicated than, say, a summit finish.

They started in the pretty spa town of Bagnères-de-Luchon. “It started right at the bottom of the Peyresourde,” Cavendish recalls, “literally at the foot of the mountain.” And because it started with a climb, riders could be seen doing something they rarely did: warming up. One, Julian Dean of Millar’s Garmin team, started to ride up the Peyresourde, on the course itself, but was mistaken for a fan by an overzealous gendarme. He was told to get off his bike and push it, an instruction he ignored, provoking the anger of the gendarme, who wrestled him to the ground. As if the race wasn’t hard enough for a sprinter like Dean, he was starting it with fresh crash wounds. “It was supposed to be neutralized going up,” Cavendish remembers, “but I was dropped right at the start. It was just me, Bernie, and [Bert] Grabsch [another HTC teammate]. And who’s that French guy who crashes a lot? Lloyd Mondory, that’s him.”*

*On the eve of the Tour, Mondory had been in another incident with Cavendish, when he came down in a horrific crash at the Tour of Switzerland for which Cavendish was blamed. “If you look at that, he was nowhere near me!” Cavendish says now. “He just can’t handle his bike.” It was a year in which Switzerland seemed cursed for Cavendish: Earlier, at the Tour de Romandie, he was sent home by his team after winning a stage and celebrating with an “Up Yours” V-sign, a gesture apparently directed at his critics.

Cavendish was in the process of rescuing his dismal season at the Tour, winning three stages in the first two weeks, but on the Peyresourde, so early on stage 15, it didn’t look as though he’d make it to Paris.

He takes up the story. “So there’s us four, we’re dropped on the Peyresourde, and there’s the gruppetto ahead, with Petacchi. They hear we’re behind, so they try to eliminate us. They start riding full gas so we can’t get back.” So much for Petacchi’s pre-stage chat; all’s fair in love and the Tour. “It’s the four of us,” Cavendish continues, “and we go down the descent from the Peyresourde and then start climbing the Aspin alone. Jens [Voigt, the veteran German] had crashed; he comes flying past on the Aspin, we can’t stay with him, but then we descend the Aspin like mad dogs, and drop Grabsch.”

The small group now comprises Cavendish, Eisel, and Mondory. They were a mere 42 km into the stage by the time they crested the summit of the second of the four mountains, the Col d’Aspin. Still to come was the monster, the Tourmalet. Eisel, whose job was to accompany Cavendish and make sure he finished in the time limit, reckoned they had to make contact with the gruppetto before the Tourmalet. Otherwise, their task would be far more difficult, perhaps impossible.

After a flat-out chase from the summit of the Aspin, they made contact. Cavendish remembers, “We caught the gruppetto at the bottom of the Tourmalet, by which point all the glycogen has gone; I’m finished. Ivan Basso was ill, so he was in the gruppetto.” Basso, usually an overall contender, was unused to being with the back-markers, which caused a problem. “Normally the gruppetto rides steady up the climbs, but Basso was panicking because he thinks we’re not going to make the time cut, and he starts riding up the Tourmalet fucking full gas. I was, like, ‘Bernie, I can’t do it!’”

As Cavendish slid out the back, Eisel urged him on. “Cav, I know you’re ill, mate, but we can’t fuck around here. We have to go faster than this. Come on.”

“Don’t nag me,” said Cavendish. “Just let me fucking ride. Fucking leave me alone.”

So Eisel shut up. Cavendish was angry. Eisel was furious. And so they rode on up the Tourmalet, side-by-side but on opposite sides of the road, not speaking.

Eisel was never officially assigned to the role of Cavendish’s personal escort in the mountains. It just seemed to happen. It helped that he was vastly experienced in the gruppetto, as his finishing positions in his 10 Tours de France, from 2003 to 2012, suggest: 131st, 143rd, 107th, 121st, 144th, 150th, 148th, 155th, 160th, 146th. Consistent, if nothing else.

“I understood how to ride in the mountains, and how Cav had to ride and how he had to be brought over the climbs,” says Eisel, “but in the first few years it wasn’t calculation; it was just like survival.”

They perfected the survival technique together, he adds, summing it up as “steady on the climbs, hard on the descents.” And eventually, that technique came to be about more than survival. It was with the next flat stage—the next sprint stage, so the next Cavendish victory—in mind. As Eisel explains, “The idea was to help him get through these stages, so he would finish fresher than he would have been if he’d just been scrapping on his own. He would sometimes try to hold the wheel in front. But it would mean killing himself”—the benefits of sitting behind another rider on a climb, where gravity rather than wind resistance is the main limiting factor, can be negligible. Eisel adds, “The fresher he could come out of these stages, the better chance of winning the next day.”

Despite his anger at Cavendish’s petulance, Eisel kept this in mind as he rode up the Tourmalet on the opposite side of the road to his teammate. The next day was a rest day. If he could only coax and cajole Cavendish through this one. . .

On they rode up the Tourmalet, still not speaking. “There were many stages where we’d argue,” says Eisel. “This wasn’t the only time I’d ride up one side, him up the other, not talking to each other. Sometimes, it was because I was on my limit, rather than Cav.”

Could he be hard on him, like an elder brother? “That was really rare. Most of the time I’d be telling him, ‘Dude, we are this much behind, we need to keep riding.’” Eisel was in charge of the calculations, and he had this down to a T. “It’s an easy calculation on a normal climb: You lose a minute every kilometer at a certain speed. So, you keep that speed. And you know how far down you are at the top. Then, on a 20-km downhill, if they don’t race full gas at the front you can bring back a minute or two. If it’s hard rain or slippery, we can bring back five minutes.”

It sounds like they take risks on the descents, but Eisel and Cavendish both say no. Eisel explains, “Over the years, I remember a lot from previous years; I really know most of the descents very well. Maybe not every corner, like a MotoGP rider, but I remember the important ones, where you have to be careful. The rest we can go full gas. Also, you have to trust the motorbike in front of you. We always have a motorbike in front. If he doesn’t touch the brakes, then you don’t touch yours; if you see his brake lights, you touch your brakes.”

Eisel and Cavendish’s fallouts followed a typical routine. “He’d come up with a can of Coke in his hand to say sorry,” says Eisel. “That’s how it went.” He laughs. “Like feeding apples to an elephant.”

So it goes: As they continue up the Tourmalet, Cavendish drops back to the team car and gets Eisel a can of Coke. They’re friends again. “After 4 km of the Tourmalet, with 18 km left, we’re losing about 10 seconds a kilometer [on the gruppetto], but I know we can make it back on the descent,” says Cavendish, “especially with Basso there.” Basso was strong uphill and notoriously slow going down. “We ended up losing two and a half, three minutes on the Tourmalet. And we caught them back halfway down.” Cavendish’s eyes sparkle as he recalls the pursuit. “We were on the edge, like, down that descent—on the edge.”

There was still another climb, the Col d’Aubisque. As well as Eisel, Cavendish now had another teammate there, Tony Martin. “I got a little bit of help from Tony. He was carrying my bottles. Then I took my radio out. I was, like, fuck. . .I took it off to save weight. I was like, I needed to lose every bit of weight; no sunglasses, nothing.”

Cavendish survives up the Aubisque. Basso seems less anxious here, more confident that his continued participation is not at risk. The gruppetto is unusually large, almost 90 riders. It is another factor in their favor. Even if they finish outside the time limit, will the officials be brave enough to expel half the field?

“It was a big long run-in to Pau, and I was just swinging, really struggling to hang on,” Cavendish says. “I’m sat on the back and, next thing, with 10 km to go, we’re quite close to the time limit, and I puncture. I haven’t got my radio, have I? I’d given it to Tony to save some weight on the climb. I’m on the back on my own; the guys—Bernie, Tony, Bert [Grabsch, who had rejoined them]—are on the front riding hard to make the time limit.

“I put my hand up. No team car comes up.

“I drop back through the convoy. No HTC car. Allan Peiper [his directeur sportif] had at that moment stopped for a piss. And no fucking car wanted to help me until the last car, Astana, stops and gives me a wheel. That saved me. I got back on. But, yeah. Fucking, yeah.”

On the Place de Verdun in Pau, the Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo sprints in at the head of a small group that includes Lance Armstrong. Armstrong had been trying to salvage a stage victory from what had otherwise been a disastrous final Tour; in Pau, he can only manage sixth. “It’s a very, very beautiful day,” says Fedrigo, for whom it is the third stage win of his career. Behind him, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck roll in almost seven minutes later. Another large group comes in 23 minutes down. Finally, 11 minutes later, comes the gruppetto, 34 minutes and 48 seconds behind Fedrigo. Eighty-three riders make up the group, including David Millar as well as Cavendish and Eisel.

Cavendish and Eisel were sharing a room, and Cavendish went to use the bathroom first. “Ten minutes later, Bernie wondered why he hadn’t heard the water running. He stuck his head around the door. I was sitting, cross-legged, fast asleep in the bottom of the shower.

“Bernie has a photo of me asleep in the shower. I didn’t eat that night. Didn’t have a massage. It was the rest day the next day, but I was so ill, I had a fever; I couldn’t get out of bed. I was gobbing [coughing] up this orange shit.”

The next race day, Cavendish survived another climb of the Tourmalet. He finished 164th in a seven-man group with his three amigos, Eisel, Martin, and Grabsch. Millar, still surviving with his broken rib, was just behind. He was ill, too.

The following day, into Bordeaux, was a classic sprinters’ stage. Cavendish was still rough, still coughing. “What I remember most is that I had this square stem on my bike,” he says. “At one point in the stage I coughed up this orange ball, spat it out, and it landed on the stem. It just sat there.”

Four and a half hours later, when Cavendish sprinted into Bordeaux at the head of the peloton, the orange ball of phlegm was still there. He won the stage. And he won again two days later, this time on the Champs-Élysées for the second year in a row.

Few knew how close he had come to not making it to Pau, never mind Paris. It was one of the Tour’s untold stories. Another B-side that nobody heard.


Adapted from Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore with permission of VeloPress.

Etape