When the Queen died Operation London Bridge was how we prepared for this event. We don’t have such an operation for Mark Cavendish's retirement. If we had we would have called it Operation Hermes, the Greek god who ruled over athletics and speech, as well as being the only god who could travel between the land of the living and dead, the messenger of the Olympian gods, which is ironic as one of the few things to escape Mark's palmares is an Olympic gold. I’m not saying Mark is a god, although he can sometimes be a queen, but as a codename it would have fitted.
The first time I wrote about Mark was in 2010, it was in the final chapters of my book, Racing Through The Dark, I looked it up as they are fresh memories from only a few months before when we’d been joined at the hip during a month long trip to Australia and India for the Worlds and Commonwealth Games:
“I began to see a side of Cav that I’d never known. Behind the emotionally armed, verbal Gatling gun was a very focused and mature young man. I’ve met a few people in my time who like to think they suffer from OCD, but Mark was the real deal.
Within minutes of arrival at the team hotel, he’d emptied his expensive matching luggage ensemble and made his room his home. He was clearly intending on keeping it in a near perfect state of order and hygiene while he was staying there.
If I popped across the corridor to see him in his room in the morning it already looked as if the housekeeping staff had done the rounds. But they hadn’t – immediately after he woke up, Mark would make his bed and then keep everywhere else spotlessly clean and organised.
His behaviour behind closed doors was about as far from his public persona as was possible. As a result, he became much more interesting. I put aside my loyalties I had from being so close with Tyler Farrar, often the only competitor to Mark in his sprints, and opened my mind up to Planet Cav.
It was never boring hanging out with Mark. He’s a charismatic little bastard, with an eccentric streak which makes him all the more appealing. I was amazed that he held the same desire to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games as I did. I’d assumed his rock star life in Tuscany had changed him, made him grander. I hadn’t expected that representing his home, the Isle of Man, would mean as much to him as representing Scotland would to me.
His frivolity, generosity and occasionally manic behaviour reminded me of when I was his age. But Mark’s vices were slightly less destructive than mine, probably due to the much healthier environment that surrounded him. He had come from the very nurturing Team GB set-up overseen by Brailsford, and then joined HTC, one of the new wave of clean professional teams.”
We all think we know him; it’s been written or said countless times that he wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s that honesty and vulnerability that has captured our imagination. If I close my eyes and think of Mark I see a Pixar like character who visibly changes colour depending on their emotion, we’ve see him crimson red with anger, bright shining yellow with joy, blue with sadness, black with depression. That’s Mark, we feel we know him, that we’ve been on the journey with him; yet the more you get to know him the more he becomes a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The first time I met him properly was in the spring of 2006, I was on a training camp in Tuscany staying with Max Sciandri, who at the time was looking after the GB U23 team. He asked if I’d take out one of the guys who’d just come back from racing in Germany, his name was Mark and he was convinced he was the fastest sprinter in the world. I didn’t get much chance to talk, Mark did that, I barely got a word in edgeways, he was mind-bendingly confident. It was endearing, especially while climbing, running out of breath, bright red and telling me how fast he was. Normally I’d have felt pity for a kid like that, thinking to myself, “Oh dear, you have no idea what it’s going to be like…” Yet with Mark it was charming because he clearly believed it to the core of his being, you wanted it to be true.
He arrived on the World Tour the following year, 2007, he immediately began winning. The first time I raced in the same peloton with him was at that years Volta Catalunya, he got dropped on one of the sprint stages and the teams put the hammer down to keep him out the back. He was a neo-pro, and the peloton was already scared of him. This is something that’s often overlooked, his 161 career wins have not come easy, he was peloton enemy number one for most of his career. Tactics were implemented to make his life as hard as possible, his presence on a start line turned the volume up to eleven.
He did that year’s Tour de France, it started in the UK, we were staying in the same hotel in Canary Wharf. One evening I got a knock on my door, I opened it to find a shy Mark standing there with a wrapped present. It was a framed picture of the two of us from 1998, he was a 13yr old cycling fan, I was a young pro visiting the Isle of Man for the National Championships. He told me later he was surprised at how kind I was to him that day, considering I’d just come second, he said he wouldn’t have done that, which is not true, but says so much about his attitude. He was on my wheel when he crashed on the first stage of that years TdF, I can still hear him going down.
I have so many memories and stories of Mark, he has an uncanny knack of imprinting moments of time into your memory, somehow we became close friends without ever being on the same professional team. We only raced together on the national team a handful of times, 2011 being the most memorable. I was road captain that day and we had the audacious plan of controlling the race for the entire 266km. Only having Mark as your leader could inspire such confidence. In hindsight we had quite a good team, after all, three of its members would end up winning the Tour de France, still, it was unheard of to use such a tactic. I can remember riders coming up to me asking if we were going to slow down for nature’s call as was normal early on, I’d simply look at them and say, “Not today.” The Mark Cavendish effect. Everybody raised their game to serve his needs, yet even on that day, only he could have won it. Everything fell to pieces in the final kilometre as our lead out was swamped, somehow, someway, Mark found the gap and took it on the line. Classic Cav: when all looks lost, he finds a way to win.
I find it hard to imagine us ever seeing a racer like him again. To have been in the same peloton was a privilege, to be in close quarters with him in full race mode was like nothing else I've ever seen. His ability to remain calm when all hell was breaking loose in the final kilometres was awesome to behold, in stark contrast to the dam busting waves of emotion he'd release on crossing the finish line, bearing witness for all to see just how much stress he had been managing with ice like coolness only seconds before.
Watching him these final years has been difficult, I’ve always said that you should never discount Mark, his drive and belief is indomitable, yet even I began to think he’d entered the unforgiving descending spiral that all athletes, no matter how great, eventually find themselves in. His comeback in the 2021 Tour de France proved once and for all that Mark is like no other, it was the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen, or heard of, in any sport, like Hermes he’d journeyed back from the dead to the living. They say athletes die twice: once at retirement, and again at the end of their lives. It's true for most of us, yet I have a feeling that won't be the case for Mark, and I have a feeling the dream he talked of in his press conference yesterday has not reached it's end quite yet. Just like that first ride together back in 2006, when I wanted to believe him, I want to believe he'll win that final stage at the Tour de France and take the unbeatable record in the process. Get ready player one, it's not game over yet.