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Editor’s note: The following excerpt, which takes up the 2013 Tour de France during Mark Cavendish’s difficult first week, appears in his new book from VeloPress, At Speed.
I don’t like excuses and have never had much time for people or bike riders who make them. Yet as that hardest week unfolded, I could find and point to factors that in some way mitigated the near misses that, it being me, were now invariably described as “failures.”
In Montpellier on stage 6 there were undoubtedly a couple of issues. One was my bike — or “that fucking bike!” as I referred to it on the bus after the stage, my booming voice easily audible to the scores of fans and journalists huddled around the bus. I had four or five bikes at the Tour, and I’d sensed that something might be wrong with this one on the second day in Corsica. Yes, my legs had felt heavy, lifeless, but that still didn’t seem to fully explain why I was struggling so badly. I’d wondered whether someone had shunted me on the first day and slightly damaged the bike, cracking the frame or a wheel and making them feel spongy. I’d asked the mechanics to strip it down and check it out. Meanwhile, I had ridden stages 3 and 5 and was 40 km from the end of stage 6 on a spare when I came down at a roundabout. The team car stopped, the mechanic handed me a new machine … or so I thought, until, our radios having let us down and left me chasing without any teammates, I realized to my horror that I’d been given the same spongy bike from stage 2. It either hadn’t been changed or hadn’t been fixed, hence the “that fucking bike!” diatribe.
My mood wasn’t helped by the fact that we had gone too early again, duped by the stampede of general classification contenders and their teams that was now a daily occurrence. The conventional wisdom was that they would avoid crashes by staying at the front. In reality, it was more dangerous than ever up there, with more and better sprint teams sniffing around than in all of my previous Tours. Our problem was getting sucked into the frantic, stop-start chaos of it, losing patience and confidence in the timings we’d discussed before the stages. If one guy went too early or too hard, that could compromise everything. I wouldn’t ever criticize the guys if I felt that they were committed, and they had certainly been that in Montpellier. At the same time, I could also tell myself that the combination of the damaged bike, the chase after my crash, and the imperfect lead-out had contributed as much to my defeat as the bloke who had beaten me — in this instance, André Greipel.
It’s rare for me to be beaten in a sprint and not immediately atone the next day. In Albi, on stage 7, I didn’t even get the opportunity: Peter Sagan and Cannondale unleashed hell on a category 2 climb midway through another blisteringly hot and fast stage, and that was me kaput. Sagan duly won the stage and left me looking at an already daunting 105-point deficit on the points classification.
Two days in the Pyrenees took my mind off my sprinting and onto the fight for survival. And on stage 9 to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, it was quite literally a fight. Early in the stage, an Euskaltel rider swerved in front of me, so I locked on the brakes, stalled, and shunted Geraint Thomas. I apologized and Gee didn’t make any fuss, but from over my shoulder I could hear, even with my limited Spanish, what I knew was an expletive-laden tirade. I looked around. It was Juan Jose Lobato, another Euskaltel rider. Further angry words were exchanged, his again in Spanish, then Lobato decided to communicate in a more universal language: physical violence. He slapped me, sending my glasses flying off my face, and I swung back. All this was going on while we were still on our bikes, still moving: We were a couple more lusty blows away from having a punch-up in the middle of the peloton. Luckily, there were no commissaires watching and no TV cameras. We were probably fortunate, too, that one of the elder statesmen in the peloton, Stuart O’Grady, stepped in to break us up.
That night, after the stage, buses were waiting to take the riders to Tarbes airport, where we’d catch a plane to Nantes for the first rest day of the race. And which team was sharing our bus? Euskaltel, of course. I took the chance to explain to their directeur sportif, Igor González de Galdeano, who said Lobato was young and naive but that he’d have a word. He also mumbled something about how it was in everyone’s best interest to get on, because we’d be in trouble if the commissaires saw us fighting.
“Hang on, you’re forgetting something,” I said. “He punched me, totally unprovoked.” Usually when I’m in the wrong, I’m the first to admit it, even if hours and days might have to pass before I do, but I wasn’t going to apologize for retaliating when someone slapped me in the face at 40 kph.
The first rest day, and the chance to spend time with Peta, Finn, and Delilah, was the best possible distraction for 24 all-too-short hours. Then we were straight into some of the most challenging days of my Tour de France career. When the route had been unveiled nine months earlier, my eyes had lit up on seeing the second week, with three probable sprint finishes in four days.
But while I got the sprint finishes I had hoped for, I couldn’t say the same for the results.
On stage 10 into Saint-Malo, my defeat to Kittel would have been headline-worthy enough, had the finish not been notable for other reasons. Kittel’s teammate, the Dutch rider Tom Veelers, let his head droop and stopped looking where he was going as he finished his lead-out, veered right into my line and into my body with 300 meters to go. In the impact I stayed upright but lost momentum, while Veelers crashed spectacularly in the middle of the road. Almost instantly, fingers were pointed at me, mainly because, having concentrated on the frames immediately before and during the collision, the TV analysts generally neglected to mention that the road veered left after Veelers’s fall at exactly the same angle I had taken.
I had then, admittedly, compounded the damage by getting shirty with a journalist who shouted above the scrum outside our bus, “Mark, are you to blame?”
How shirty? Enough to pull the voice recorder out of his hand — confiscate it, if you like — and only hand it back a couple of seconds later, after the realization of how this would play in the morning papers had rushed to my head.
It didn’t look great, I’ll admit. There were better ways of diverting attention away from me, the crash, and another missed opportunity to win a stage. Any journalists who hadn’t rushed to our team bus at the finish had waited for Veelers, and their questions had the effect of stoking his anger. I got hold of his number that night and called him with the intention of apologizing and defusing things, despite not believing that I’d been in the wrong, but Veelers was having none of it.
“You can come and apologize to my face,” he said. To me, this was him starting to milk it.
If Veelers’s aim was to get people on his side and turn them against me, the boos that greeted me as I rolled onto the time trial course the next day confirmed that it had worked. Fans were still jeering — and had been since the start of my ride — when, approximately halfway around the course, a shower of warm liquid flew horizontally across my path, dousing my skinsuit, helmet, and sunglasses and, worst of all, splashing my tongue and lips. On the Tour you’re sprinkled or soaked with water or beer at some point every day, but having urine thrown at me was a shocking, repulsive first.
Really, I just wanted to cry. Or stop. Back in 2009, in a Tour time trial in Annecy, a British fan had heckled me on a climb, something along the lines of “Cavendish, get up off your arse.”
I’d turned and shouted something back at him, and there, too, had been tempted to get off. Here, I was too despondent, too upset to be angry. In the hour or two after I crossed the line, got back to the bus, and told the team and some journalists what had happened, members of the team staff, Peta, and my manager all talked about taking some kind of action, getting the race organizers involved, maybe even the police.
I told them that we should just forget it; I didn’t want sympathy or justice, I just wanted the whole thing to end. It was the feeling that I’d had in 2010 when I sat on the bus in Reims, towel over my head, stomach churning like a washing machine, the world seemingly collapsing around me. What troubled me most was that it hadn’t been just that one idiot, which I often got somewhere along the course at the Tour, but so many people along the route booing that the noise had accompanied me from the start-ramp to the finish line.
That afternoon, back at a nearly empty team hotel on an industrial state outside Saint-Malo, the whole experience had left me exhausted, sickened, and shell-shocked. The news that Tony Martin had won the time trial brought some solace, but in quiet moments that evening, the sights, sounds, and, worst of all, rancid taste of that afternoon flooded my thoughts. Every rider I had seen that day — and every rider I would discuss it with over the next two or three days — agreed that Veelers’s crash the previous day had not been my fault. The commissaires had also exonerated me. Without wanting to sound egotistical, I could see that the press had been all over it because the “Bad Boy Cavendish” story line was one of their favorites. Veelers might have been under the misimpression that they were genuinely outraged, that they genuinely sympathized with him, which perhaps they did a bit — but they were mainly preoccupied with what it said about me and my Tour. Was this not, they had asked, yet more evidence of me slowing down and resorting to unfair tactics to compensate? Then there had been the incident with the journalist’s voice recorder — a massive media relations own goal on my part, although admittedly not quite as dramatic as the papers and TV reports had made out.
This all explained the public’s reaction, but it didn’t lessen the blow. Popularity wasn’t something I’d ever necessarily craved, but unpopularity wasn’t something I enjoyed, either.
The next day something unprecedented happened: Led out perfectly by Gert Steegmans, I was outgunned, outsprinted, and outclassed by Marcel Kittel on the finishing straight in Tours. I had always said that the day when I had good form, a decent lead-out, and no physical or mechanical problems and yet was still beaten would be the time to start attaching some credence to the hysterical inquests that the press conducted after every one of my defeats. I had said it while never really believing that the day would come, not for a few years anyway, and yet here it apparently was.
I was racking my brains for a reason, an excuse, an alibi, but this time could find none sufficient to explain the loss. Yes, I had been ill early in the race; yes, I had felt “twisted” on the bike ever since my crash in the first week; and, no, my condition wasn’t exceptional. But even this aggregation of marginal losses shouldn’t have put me behind Kittel. Unless, that is, the press were right, and the German Dolph Lundgren lookalike and soundalike really was now the Master of the Universe when it came to sprinting.
The only way to put things right was to restore what I still hoped was the natural order and do it immediately, the next afternoon on the stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond. This was a stage that had had me licking my lips for reasons beyond the relatively flat route profile: We, like other teams, knew that we would be racing on roads that were exposed, windy, and therefore ripe for echelons, the game of cycling snakes and ladders that could be used to split the peloton by strong riders or teams who knew how to use those gusts to their advantage. In the crudest, most simplistic possible terms, echelons happened when a team or group of strong riders attacked with the wind gusting hard from one side; by fanning out diagonally across the road toward the wind direction and rotating through the line quickly and cohesively, they could condemn the riders at the bottom of the line to a place in the gutter, in the wind, and in imminent danger of losing contact.
Once one of those riders lost the wheel — or was deliberately shut out by a “ticket collector” placed at the back of the line to decide who was allowed into the echelon — there was no way back. It was a fine art that demanded strength, timing, nous, and balls; at Omega Pharma-Quick Step, we were considered experts.
In the days that followed what became a famous stage, there would be all sorts of fanciful, verging on folkloric stories about code words devised by Wilfred Peeters and plans concocted the night before by our team and the Dutch squad, Belkin. In reality, our attack was a spur-of-the-moment decision, though naturally informed by our prior knowledge of the course. Gert Steegmans had wanted to go even before we dropped the bomb, inside the first 50 km of the stage; Gert had even started pulling away, when Tony Martin shouted that it was too early and we should wait. Not long later, though, we plunged the detonator and blew the race apart. Kittel was among the many, many riders — over half of the peloton — left groveling in the gutter. They would either have to ride faster than our group or wait for a change in the wind to repair the damage. Neither was going to happen.
For 70 km we pounded the pedals and the gap kept growing. Then, with around 30 km to go, the message from the team car was that the winds were about to get even stronger. All day, Alberto Contador’s Saxo Bank team had been freeloading on our work, telling us that they didn’t want to help with the pacemaking, yet it was they who now suddenly stepped on the gas to whittle the group down even further and distance the race leader, Chris Froome. As 13 riders started to pull away, I watched Michał Kwiatkowski in front of me try, try, try to be the 14th, but ultimately lose the wheel of the rider ahead of him. I now had a choice to make: to stick or twist, stay or go.
I went, performing my fastest, hardest sprint of the Tour to bridge the gap and join the front group. Of the 14 riders now sure to contest the stage win, we had 3 — Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra, and yours truly. The only rider even remotely likely to challenge me in a sprint was Peter Sagan of the Cannondale team, but Niki had an idea: He would attack with just over a kilometer to go, forcing Sagan’s sole teammate in the group to close the gap, whereupon Chavanel would come up behind with Sagan on his wheel and me on Sagan’s. Chava would then peel off at 400 meters to go and leave Sagan in the wind, in the jaws of our trap. We executed the plan almost to the letter.
It was my 25th Tour stage win, which lifted me to joint third in the all-time league table, alongside André Leducq and behind only Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx. It was perhaps the first one of those 25, however, for which I’d had to race — really race. Maybe a successful rematch with Kittel would have comforted my ego, marked my territory once again, but that could wait for the Champs Elysées. A win was a win, and this one was pretty memorable.