Not even a hole in his lung could stop Mark Cavendish talking to us. It was this same determination that fired his dramatic comeback in July
by: Steven MacKenzie
13 Dec 2021
Photo: John Furlong / Alamy Stock Photo
This interview took place the day before Mark Cavendish was violently attacked in his family home on November 27 by masked robbers who had forced their way in. All at The Big Issue wish him a speedy recovery.
For Mark Cavendish, 2021 had already been a year of dramatic highs punctuated by some lows. Having not won any stages in a major race since 2016, he won four at the Tour de France this summer, taking his total to a staggering 34, equalling Eddy Merckx’s all-time record. The 36-year-old’s return to form has been hailed as the greatest sporting comeback ever.
The Manx Missile first became world champion in 2005 while still a teenager. Commonwealth and Olympic medals followed before his road racing heroics established his reputation as the greatest sprinter in history.
Then he stopped winning. After experiencing mental health problems, his performance suffered and his legacy was at stake. This time last year he wasn’t attached to a team. But Cavendish knew his race was not yet over.
Late last month in Ghent, a crash left him with serious injuries, including two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. But only days later he Zooms with The Big Issue to explain how he’s overcome adversity on and off the track – and we are sure he will do so again after the recent attack.
THE BIG ISSUE: First of all, how are you feeling?
MARK CAVENDISH: I’m all right, thank you. A little pain but I’m at home so it’s OK.
During a crash does time slow down or is it all over before you realise?
You’re aware what’s happening. You’re trying to pre-empt how you’re going to fall. Some crashes happen without you knowing, but I could see it unfolding in front of me [he was following a rider who slipped on water on the velodrome track] so you have time, although it’s just a split second. You just think about protecting your vital organs, your head and doing as little damage as possible.
So was it a good fall, relatively speaking?
Unfortunately I landed on the other bike, which you can’t help. I landed with a handlebar in my ribs. That’s what broke the ribs, made a tear in the lung. And that’s why it deflated a bit. If you can come away just injured you’ve been lucky. My wife and kids were there so I wanted to stand up. I shouldn’t have stood up but it was the kids. If I stand up at least they know I’m OK. My wife, she’s seen it enough to know but for the kids, it’s more or less if I get up or not. That’s what sticks in their heads.
I wanted to talk to you about pain. In your new book you describe the pain of racing the Tour de France every day for three weeks as “a pain I couldn’t live – couldn’t conceive of life – without”. What’s the difference between that pain and the pain you’re in now?
One, it’s self-inflicted. OK, you can slow down if it hurts but there’s motivation to push through something if there’s a reward at the end of it. In sports, it’s winning. If you know you can suffer more than somebody else you’re likely to get what you want at the end of it.
Who do you race for – a team, a country, yourself?
As a professional, I race for my team. But in the team I’m in now, Deceuninck–Quick-Step, we’re more than teammates, we’re friends. You’re not just going in and doing a job together, we’re going into battle together. When you know you’re getting that from the others, it’s easier for you to give that to the others. Of course, I like to win, but I’m riding for all those people that put belief in me, whether it’s my teammates, my family, my fans and support, especially now.
A year ago, what were your hopes for 2021?
My hope was to be able to ride for this team, trying to scramble everything together. I wasn’t performing. From my perspective, I couldn’t perform properly. I had too many excuses. My bike didn’t fit me – that’s out of my control. A team that I don’t gel with – that’s part me, but it’s still an excuse. If I could come to this team and eliminate those excuses, it’s only down to me. And I knew if I could do what I can do, I knew I’d be successful.
So when you started winning, you weren’t surprised?
I was surprised. But it wasn’t disbelief, if that makes sense. I knew the work I’d put into it. Still, it hadn’t happened for so long the emotions were there.
Did victories feel different when you came from nowhere compared to a few years ago, when you were almost expected to win?
I think that’s the word – expectation. Sportspeople have pressure. That’s part and parcel of it. But there’s a massive difference between pressure and expectation. You can control pressure. Pressure is something that other people put on you but ultimately it’s you who deals with how much of that you want to use. Whereas expectation is something that’s completely out of your control. That’s somebody else’s thought process. I was always expected to win and that’s why if I didn’t win, I failed.
Is cycling – or many other sports – as much a mental test as a physical one?
Absolutely. I’m not particularly strong. Don’t get me wrong, I can ride a bike. But I’m nowhere near the most physically gifted as a bike rider. There are so many sprinters way better than me but put them in a position where they have to carry a team and win, it’s different. Carrying that weight of expectation to win is a pretty big thing. Fortunately or unfortunately – in my eyes, fortunately – I was world champion in my first year. I’ve never known anything but that. So that’s played a part in being able to shoulder that responsibility for my entire career.
You’ve spoken openly about your experiences with mental health. Do you wish more people would?
Do you want to know the biggest reason I talk about it? Because five years ago I was somebody who didn’t take it seriously. I really just thought it was an excuse. I’m grateful now that I’ve got the platform to be able to talk personally about it. For me, talking with other people who suffered was the best way to deal with it. Because so many people don’t understand. So the more people talk about it, the bigger that network becomes.
It’s such a strange thing. You can’t paint a picture of what mental health problems are. They manifest themselves in different ways in different people. And ultimately pooh-poohing the idea that it’s a serious illness, it doesn’t just not help people, it’s a detriment. It’s a massive detriment. And I think, especially in the last couple of years, so many people have been in a position that they’ve lost everything, they’ve suffered emotionally and developed mental health symptoms. We have to take it seriously and talk about it.
If you could go back to yourself five years ago, what would you tell him?
Show some empathy. It’s not a made-up thing. I think Robin Williams said the best phrase, I’m paraphrasing: ‘people aren’t pretending to have mental health issues, people are pretending to be OK’. That sums it up pretty well.
Was there enough support available to you?
I’m in a warped world, because it’s professional sport and cycling is quite an old-fashioned sport. It’s behind other sports in terms of that. But I have to say that there was the support I needed. The ironic thing is that when you’re suffering, you don’t search for help. From my experience, when I was ill, not having help, you take it as no one wants to help you. But you haven’t asked anybody. That’s how it goes through your mind. It doesn’t make any logical sense but you don’t think logically.
When you’re coming to the end of a race, what is going through your mind in the last 30 seconds?
If you’re a cycling fan, you want to see the romantic explanation of a sprint with endorphins going, you’re elbowing and it’s just a fight. It’s actually quite the opposite. Like there’s elbows going and there’s fights, but it’s very analytical. You’re looking five moves ahead. Imagine you’re a chess piece about to make the first move and you’re looking at how to get the king.
What do you do when you’re not racing or training or recovering?
Try and be a dad as much as possible. I spend so much time away from them and I make so many sacrifices from that life to be able to do what I do that that’s all I crave. We’ve got four kids. It’s always busy and noisy. I just love it. Are they getting bikes from Santa? They got them last year actually. The littlest one, he’s crazy about it. Anything cycling. He’s three and he’s on it full gas.
What are your plans for 2022? Have they changed in the last few days?
Obviously this isn’t ideal, but I still think I’m going to win next year. What I win, I don’t know, but I’m pretty confident, otherwise I’d have just stopped. It’d have been a good year to stop, to come back and just do it. But I know I’m still on an upward trajectory. And I still love it.
Tour de Force by Mark Cavendish (Ebury Publishing, £20) is out now
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.