2021, somewhere in Kent.
I'm commentating on the Tour de France, under Covid restrictions we no longer travel to the race, it's all done from Maidstone Studios. Two weeks ago the news was announced that Mark Cavendish would be not being starting this year's Tour, Patrick Lefevere stating that the team would be backing Sam Bennett, the defending Green Jersey. This made sense, and seemed the rational decision, after all, Sam Bennett is considered the best sprinter in the world right now. Mark Cavendish's return to form wasn't enough, the fairytale was over, his years long battle to return to his best hadn't been enough to return him to the race he loved most - he'd almost done it, and in many ways that was already miraculous, because no pro cyclist has ever rescued a decline and fall from form the like he has experienced. Yet, then a few days later everything changed, Bennett was out, Cavendish was in. Destiny took control. The rest is history, although dare I say, it's unfinished, he's making his own, in the words of Ned Boulting as he crossed the line on Stage 4 into Fougeres, "Stop the clock! Turn back time. History is not in charge here, Mark Cavendish is..." That decline and fall became evident back in the summer of 2018, and the tenacity he showed that day is what made him do what many would consider impossible on 2021. Champions aren't made, they're born.
2005, somewhere in Tuscany.
I was on my ban, I was training hard and Max Sciandri was looking after me. He was also looking after the newly created men’s British under 23 team, led by an ex-bike racer and newly converted coach called Rod Ellingworth.
Occasionally I’d ride with Rod’s boys (Rod and I knew each other from racing together in the nineties). They were a motley crew, all part of the British Cycling funded system led by Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton. Rod’s job was to not only train physically, but develop mentally, a bunch of wunderkinder into Olympic medal winners. Dave and Shane knew that they needed their young track protégés to become elite road racers in order to assure their velodrome success.
I remember vividly one of those rides. For some reason it was just the two of us. He was cocky AF. I was on a recovery ride yet he was panting next to me, mainly due to the fact he wouldn’t stop talking. He told me he was the fastest sprinter in the world. He’d just won a bunch sprint in Berlin and put 20m into the next guy. I thought he was insane and overweight. He was 19.
Six years later I was his road captain at the Worlds in Copenhagen. We became good friends, Rod continued to coach him, and all his other boys beyond the British team, teaching them to be not only bike racers but honourable sportsmen. Rod always made that his priority.
2018, somewhere in the Alps.
I’d just finished commentating on stage 11 of the Tour de France. We always have time to kill afterwards, Ned and I do our own thing until the evacuation begins. It’s the only time in the day (the rest of the time we’re cheek to jowl) we have a bit of space.
I decided I’d walk up the finish straight and use my proper camera to try and capture some shots of the stragglers coming in, I thought I’d get some powerful expressions in my photographic naivety. I did this for a bit and then realised I was shit at it and made a mental note to get some lessons on using not-a-phone as a camera, so started taking photos of fans as they don’t move much and I could frame everything appropriately.
It then became apparent to me that everybody was waiting for Mark Cavendish to finish, I thought he’d stopped as it had been so long since any rider had been through and they were taking down banners. I thought, shit, I must get a picture of Mark coming up here amongst the shutting down Tour de France.
The longer I stood there the more I thought about him. The road was so empty, people stopped caring, normal life was starting to take over. I put the lens cap back on my camera and started walking up to the race car deviation. I didn’t want to take a picture of him, I wanted to be on the road next to him to cheer him on 200m from the line. I knew he wouldn’t notice me, but he would hear me, and I wanted him to hear me.
My commentator pass allowed me to get through and stand on the road, and there were only two other people there, the marshal to direct the cars off the road, and Rod Ellingworth. We shook hands.
“Rod, JESUS, where is he?”
“I feel responsible for this. I always told him you don’t stop out of respect for the race.”
I said, “We should run with him for a bit.”
“No, I just want to see him.”
“I’m going to take a photo of you.”
Rod is the Performance Manager and Coach for Team Sky. And so, there we stood, me a bit further up the road, still incapable of using my good camera. Rod crouched down, clapping one of his boys home.
One of his other boys from those Tuscan days had finished an hour before with his arms aloft, first and last, both honourable. You did it, Rod.