the emotive missile
a reflection on Mark Cavendish
Retirement is rarely completely voluntary, instead frequently summoned by injury or illness, a team’s financial mismanagement, or merely the losing battle with age. But there lies a mental block also, an unwillingness among many professionals to continually sacrifice their lives and bodies in pursuit of an elite athletic standard that is continually held in (a presumed) low regard by us as fans. If this increasing unease at such high commitment is the egg, then aging is perhaps the chicken, a self-fulfilling paradox that makes most athletic careers so fleeting. Last month, in response to his own tweet, the former Bicycling editor Peter Flax concisely yet affectionately captured this decline when pondering Peter Sagan’s drop in form as he too embarks on his retirement tour. Each statement succinct, matter of fact, yet also almost inevitable.
“He had Covid three times. His marriage ended. He lost team support. New revelatory talents entered the sport. He got older. He no longer seems to be passionate about racing.”
“In short, life happened to Peter Sagan.”
Ahead, many mature athletes harbour desires to finally establish a supposedly ‘normal’ life, one where children can grow at a regular speed, coffees can be accompanied by cake, meals can be measured by eyes and ambition over gram and percentage. Life, after all, is increasingly too short.
In the spring of 2022, as Mark Cavendish raced and won at the Giro d’Italia once again, the messaging from his QuickStep bosses became increasingly stern. There would be no ‘last dance’ at the Tour de France, for the future of the team lay with Fabio Jakobsen. Cavendish, in the form of his life the previous summer, had seemingly blown his chance of a 35th Tour stage win on the Champs-Élysées. As team manager Patrick Lefevre had implied, victory then should have brought retirement at the top, but the moment was lost to events. In his subsequent book recounting that race, Cavendish was defiant – insisting on his strength that day and devoting three pages of frustration towards Jasper Philipsen’s lead-out man Jonas Rickaert, who perceivably boxed Cavendish into the corner of the road behind Wout van Aert. His own errors of judgement in ignoring the available services of Michael Mørkøv and his team’s lead-out train were also acknowledged. To have won four stages of the Tour de France and the Green Jersey that year was an immense result, a flashback to the age of single-sprinter domination that now appears replaced by anarchy. But the joy was muted by circumstance, defeat in the final stage gave way not to slight regret, but a lingering frustration. It exposed a hunger, a drive that could not be neutered by retirement. And so he rode on.
Now 38, Cavendish has announced his farewell tour when the form appears competitive, morale is high, and all appears well. He appears happy at the Giro once more, in pursuit of a 17th stage win, though still in ultimate preparation (at least through British media lenses) for a final Merckxian tilt at glory in France. His competitiveness in the race is made impressive by his lack of lead-out support in comparison to his rivals, his joie de vivre is strong. He is still punchy, scrappy, a nimble fighter against stronger gravitational forces on a bike. Yet he is content, ready for what retirement will bring, where it will leave him sitting in life – even if a future purpose as yet evades him.
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If retirement is a release, a supposed freedom from the duties and responsibilities placed upon you by those above and around, then it may not be immediately clear what Mark Cavendish wishes to release himself from. He appears almost immune now to external pressure, a far cry from the hot-headed youth that would talk himself up no-end, with an almost foolish arrogance that antagonised his rivals in the peloton. Only victories could silence such criticism, though it was Cavendish after all who was the dominant sprinter above the anarchists, the Manx Missile whose presence on the start line would galvanise his teams to work for him, their commitment total, his belief never wavering. His success was a spearheading of the British Invasion to a Europhile sport, the first generation of an Olympic development legacy that inspired millions. It is indeed reflective of how widely he is understood at least at home.
Despite his prolonged and extensive career of success, between himself and his track-racing teammate Bradley Wiggins, Cavendish will forever embody an era in British popular consciousness when national pride was briefly cool. The zeitgeist of Olympic fever saw self-deprecation become a celebrated characteristic of a proud nation, rather than a mere comfort blanket against our most reactionary and ill judgements subsequently. At once a second Cool Britannia emerged, supposedly catapulting a national psyche, if one ever existed, into a state of near self-content. Understatement remained prevalent, if not as virtuous as once was.
As a backdrop to this warped retrospective, gone were the days when middle-aged men in lycra would be left to contemplate whether David Millar – Cavendish’s first idol and a nomadic Brit independent of any national infrastructure – would even finish the Tour de France. Instead, Cavendish’s victory as World Champion on the Champs-Élysées in 2012, riding for a British team and being led-out by the British winner, etched itself into popular cycling consciousness, even partially transcending the British niche of cycling fandom that once exclusively occupied eclectic magazines and late-night television highlights.
As far as non-cycling fans were concerned, Cavendish and Wiggins embodied British cycling only as much as their counterparts on the track, their victories at the Tour de France surely just a testing ground for inevitable home Olympic success, where British sporting perceptions are peculiarly oriented. Such was Team GB’s success, that Cavendish’s failure to win Gold in London 2012 soon didn’t matter, for the future seemed boundless for both the country and Cavendish. Neither lacked the confidence to back themselves for future prosperity.
That this essay of reflection, a tribute to the greatest sprinter in the history of the sport, indebts itself to a race 11 years ago is a testament to the longevity of our protagonist. At his heart, Mark Cavendish is a man who enjoys riding his bike fast. What has changed over his career, is what he defines as fast, be it relative to others or more so out of an aesthetic joy. Even if his legs do not match the levels of a boy racer who was beating Robbie McEwen and Eric Zabel over 15 years ago, his head seems grounded, self-content, satisfied of the life he has created for himself, proud of his achievements, if still hungry enough for one more major triumph. Even if not at his pinnacle, there remains a sentiment that Cavendish is quitting whilst he’s ahead, a luxury few other professionals can always ascribe to themselves.
In many ways, what is most remarkable about Mark Cavendish’s retirement is the control he has exerted. Neither Epstein-Barr virus nor severe injury (most recently a punctured lung) have cut his career short, only fuelling his desire to continue. Neither could a team’s collapse, as happened with Team B&B Hotels over the winter, derail the then 37-year old’s plans for this season as it did dozens of other riders forced into continental teams or retirement. In the autumn of 2020, Cavendish seemed close to retirement, threatening a sudden departure at Gent Wevelgem in an emotional post-race interview. Yet, he continued.
To some riders, retirement presents itself as a threat rather than a release. A force to constantly push against, it is an action worth delaying through the will of the mind or the endurance of the legs. To think of Alejandro Valverde is to remember a rider latterly involved in an almost never-ending pursuit against time. Time lost through doping suspensions and retroactive disqualifications, time ahead of the multiple generations that only began to usurp him as he entered his forties. Pierre Rolland was less fortunate, denied the time of day to be able to achieve closure, a drawing of a line that his career and reputation deserved. Cycling is not a sport of control.
Mark Cavendish’s evolution from the precocious talent, to the battle-hardened professional, to an elder statesman of the peloton has somehow given him an image of poise. A projection that, regardless of his present results, here stands a man content, his undying love for the bike remains undiminished. The same love that first made the boy from the Isle of Man plead with his parents to buy him a Mountain Bike so he could catch up to the older boys. Soon enough, he was beating them.
Though performances in July may change his short-term view (and indeed those of us as spectators), what few will deny is that here stands a sprinter prepared to ride into the sunset, to worry no longer about turning back time, instead now braced to accelerate away and extricate himself from the strange cycling ecosystem that makes fools out of former idols, but here has made an idol out of a former fool. Cavendish won’t worry about this, or even necessarily plan what the future may hold, yet he can be buoyed by the exciting truth that life – at least in its delightful mundanities to which we relate – can finally begin.