Throwback Thursday: Mark Cavendish and his life in the fast lane

From awkward questions about Tyler Farrar to two-hour conversations about life in and out of the saddle, we recall some of the highs and lows of reporting on Mark Cavendish.

Photo: James Startt

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In our latest installment of “Throwback Thursday,” VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt take a look at Mark Cavendish, the pugnacious sprinter who recently signed a deal to return to Deceuninck-Quick-Step for 2021.

At his best, Cavendish was the fastest in the world, winning more stages at the Tour de France than anybody except Eddy Merckx. When he wasn’t winning, it was another story. Either way, Cavendish was always the center of drama as one of the superstars of a new generation.

What was your standout moment with Mark Cavendish?

James Startt: Perhaps it was the first time I actually met him. Back in 2008, I was invited to the HTC training camp in Mallorca and everyone wanted some time with Cavendish.

Journalists were being really aggressive sticking their microphones in his face at every instance. It was really competitive and I actually felt sorry for him. So I just held back, preferring to observe instead. I occasionally took an image as he was setting up his bike for the season, and at one point we exchanged a couple of words regarding his handlebar stem, but that was it.

Later, at the end of the day, I was told to meet Mark in the bar. And when he sat down, he immediately thanked me for giving him some space earlier. And that was the start of a 20-minute interview that turned into a two-hour conversation. Mark just kept chatting and soon we were talking more about life than the bike. At one point I actually had to propose that we stop and go down for dinner. How often does that happen?

That was just one of a couple of unforgettable moments I have had with him over the years.

Andrew Hood: Back in the day, I was always that guy asking about his rivalry with Tyler Farrar. There was no love lost between the two in their early years, and Cavendish reveled in taking digs at Farrar, whom he considered a lesser opponent. The two later became teammates and quite good friends in what was a sign of their mutual respect.

Cavendish was one of the last of the old-school racers who seemed to thrive off rivalries and tension. And he often took it out on the media when he wasn’t winning, and wouldn’t be shy if you asked what he thought was a stupid question. Some questions are stupid, yet sometimes it seemed like the media would wind up Cavendish on purpose just to see if they could get a rise out of him.

Like it or not, Cavendish was king of the sprints in his prime, and he expected to be treated like one.

Do you have any personal story or anecdote from an interaction with Cavendish?

Andrew: I remember in 2016 in Doha, I had scheduled a sit-down with Cavendish via his agent the day after the world championship race. After losing the rainbow jersey to Peter Sagan by inches the previous afternoon, I really wasn’t expecting much that morning.

Instead, Cavendish was open, expansive, and even caught me off-guard with his candor. In fact, that was the last time I had the chance to speak with him one-on-one.

There was a lot more I should have asked that day. It was always all or nothing for Cavendish with the media. Either he was in the mood to talk, or he wasn’t.

James: I remember a moment in 2014 when he was coming back from his crash in the Tour de France. I ran into him at the start of a stage in the Tour de l’Ain, his first race back after a month of rehab. I told him that I wanted to do a story on how riders return from a serious crash, and he told me to set it up with the press officer. The meeting was set for two days later.

The only problem was the race started in the pouring rain that day, and it was the big mountain day. Cavendish was dropped on the first climb and spent the entire day in front of the broom wagon.

I got to his hotel after the stage and saw no sign of him.

As the other riders on his team started coming down for dinner, I figured that my interview just might not happen. And really, I could not blame Cavendish in such a situation. But then he arrived, and immediately sat down with me, answering my questions as the others ate. Total class, that’s all I can say.

Do you think Cavendish will be winning sprints again at Deceuninck-Quick-Step? Or are his fastest days over?

James: I sure hope so. I think Cav deserves better than he has gotten in the past couple of years, and I salute his choice to return to Quick-Step. It is the choice of someone who wants to put performance first and it is a team that has a history of reviving the careers of aging champions.

Perhaps his fastest days are behind him, but the Belgian team will really study Cav’s problems from the past couple of years and I think that the incredible team organization will give him the confidence he needs to be at his best. Oh, and one other thing, they know how to put together a great leadout train.

Andrew: My head says no, but my heart says yes.

At 36 in May, it’s hard to imagine Cavendish beating the likes of Caleb Ewan or Wout Van Aert in a sprint anywhere. Cavendish peaked in 2016, and following a rash of crashes and injuries, has only won two races since then, and neither was in Europe. So logically, no, I don’t see him winning bunch sprints again.

The bike racing fan inside of me says, hell yeah, who wouldn’t love to see Cavendish back in the mix? Even if reports are true that he is not drawing a salary at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, it’s only fitting that he has a proper sendoff to the sport on a top team.

Who wasn’t moved when Cavendish teared up at Scheldeprijs this fall when he thought it was his last race?

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