At Speed, by Mark Cavendish

Bryn Lennon
At Speed, by Mark Cavendish

Title: At Speed - My Life in the Fast Lane
Author: Mark Cavendish (with Daniel Friebe)
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year: 2013
Pages: 314
Order: Ebury
What it is: Volume two of the autobiographies of Mark Cavendish, sprinter
Strengths: More about the struggle to stay at the top than the thrill of being there
Weaknesses: More about the struggle to stay at the top than the thrill of being there

If you hold with the multiverse view of the cosmos, then out there somewhere is a parallel Earth in which, having won the World Championships,  Mark Cavendish walked away from Bob Stapleton at the end of 2011 and found lasting peace and harmony in the arms of Dave Brailsford. In this world that parallel Cavendish will have won the road race at the London Olympics and, following on from that success, will have published the second volume of his autobiographies. The story arc will be perfect, the book opening with him winning the Rainbow Jersey and closing with him bagging an Olympic Gold. It'll be such a positive, uplifting book - a true triumph of the will - that even outside of cycling circles people will be crazy about it and the story it tells.

In our reality, though, things didn't quite work out like that and there was no gold at the end of the rainbow. While At Speed opens with Cavendish winning the Worlds in Copenhagen, without anything to replace the absent Olympic success the book struggles to cope with the lack of an ending to match. Originally scheduled for release in the aftermath of the London Games publication got pushed back a year only for reality to laugh loudly at those trying to script the perfect ending.

Boy Racer - volume one of Cavendish's autobiographies - originally covered the story of Cavendish's rise up to and including the 2008 Tour de France, with the paperback update taking in Milan-Sanremo and the 2009 Tour de France. In both editions, then, it went out on high notes. The ground to be covered in At Speed is 2010 through to the end of 2013: the collapse of HTC, an unhappy year with Sky and an uncertain beginning with Omega Pharma. The Worlds win is about the only high note in the whole thing (there are other wins - stages and points jerseys - but they're so expected they seem that little bit less significant at this stage).

Boy Racer worked - and worked brilliantly - for two reasons: first, it had a great story, the kid from the arse end of nowhere (a wind-swept rock in the Irish Sea) who fought to get into the Manchester medal factory and then pushed himself to the top of his sport; and secondly, it had the voice (or a believably close approximation of the voice) of Cavendish, a mix of passion, confidence and humility that can suck you in. At Speed still has the same voice but the story arc is ... well the story arc is more challenging.

Selected palmarès of Mark Cavendish
Tour de France 2008 - 4 stages; 2009 - 6 stages; 2010 - 5 stages; 2011 - 5 stages + maillot vert; 2012 - 3 stages; 2013 - 2 stages.
Giro d'Italia 2008 - 2 stages; 2009 - 3 stages; 2011 - 2 stages; 2012 - 3 stages + combativity + Azzuri d'Italia; 2013 - 5 stages + maglia rossa + combativity + Azzuri d'Italia
Vuelta a España 2010 - 3 stages + maillot verde
World Championships 2011
Milan-Sanremo 2009
Grote Scheldeprijs 2007, 2008, 2011
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne 2012
Tour of Qatar 2013
Ster ZLM Toer 2012

At Speed could just as easily have been titled My Struggle, dealing as it does with the difficulties Cavendish encountered once he made it to the top. The tone is set from the outset. Having opened with Cavendish winning the Rainbow Jersey, we then step back in time and find him dealing (not very well) with an abscess that developed after a bit of cosmetic dental work:

"It was my own fault, my own vanity that had done it. My bottom front teeth had always been crooked and over the previous few months I had finally decided to do something about it. Even now it strikes me as so superficial that I find myself wincing as I write, but that's one of those things that happen when you become more successful and, consequently, more intensely scrutinised."

The fact that At Speed has to deal with a difficult period in the career of Cavendish doesn't make it a bad book. But it does mean that it is quite a different book to Boy Racer, and in comparison with its first volume, that can make it a less than satisfying read. There is, though, a lot in it to make it a good book, a book about struggling with success, the difficulty of staying on top once you get there. And Cavendish is self-aware enough to realise that this is what was happening to him. Here he is on the furore surrounding the spate of crashes he got involved in during 2010:

"In that 2010 season I'd crashed three times, but because of who I was, the stage I was performing on, and the schadenfreude that was clearly such a popular disease, everything had been magnified and exaggerated. Again, for me, it was all part of the learning curve - finding out that the trappings of success included scrutiny and criticism and realising that I needed to adapt. Accepting that, though, and assimilating it, was going to be a long process, especially for someone as headstrong as me."

Post Boy Racer, life for Mark Cavendish was not easy. On a personal level, he broke up with his bride-to-be, his grandmother died and his brother got sent to gaol. On a professional level, life at HTC was not quite hunky-dory. There was the rivalry with team-mate André Greipel, there was the feeling that Bob Stapleton was taking advantage of him, his access to one of his most important mentors, Rod Ellingworth, had been curtailed by the creation of Sky and rivals were doing whatever they could to undermine his confidence and so blunt his sprint:

"This was June 2010. The Tour de France was three weeks away and I was a mess. Lonely, miserable, out of form, unpopular with journalists, fellow riders and even fans, after the highs of the previous two years, I'd fallen into a pit of despair."

In just a few months Cavendish went from hero to zero, from - as he points out - the man L'Équipe dubbed the Mozart of the Eleven-Tooth Sprocket to Catastrophe Cavendish, skittling the peloton in sprint finishes. The only way to deal with such turbulence is to win. And - as with Boy Racer - the winning is described by Cavendish with a wonderful intensity. Here he is breaking the log-jam on the fifth stage of the 2010 Tour, Montargis:

"Mark [Renshaw] looks around, 600, another look, 550, he's still waiting, waiting, just holding me there. It's 450 and he doesn't move, then 400 and he's starting to slide out, alongside the Garmins, then past them. It's 350 now and I'm praying my legs don't fucking let me down, not today, Cav. It's coming now, 300, and it's open, wide open, and if you can't win from here, Cav, it's fucking wide open. It's 250 and it's 240 ...

"Mark's fading to the left and I'm going to the right. I kick and know, I know straight away: one kick, one pedal stroke and I know. I've won. I know.

"And I win. Finally I win and a nightmare's over, all six months of it."

Winning plugged a hole, but it didn't fill the void. In particular it didn't solve the problems within HTC. Cavendish is somewhat oblique on these - he says that even he didn't really know what was going on behind the scenes with Stapleton and his search for sponsors - but the long and the short of the story told suggests that Stapleton was trying to do too much on too little. If, at times, Cavendish can come across as a cycling Michael Schumacher - he is one of the few riders whose autobiography actually talks about the bikes he rides and what he does to get the best out of them - then Stapleton was a bit like Eddie Jordan, punching above his weight by getting talent young and cheap.

Most people in life are willing to work for less than top dollar if the working environment is good, if they've got job security and are doing something they enjoy with people they get on with. Stapleton's teams were never all that secure. Teams like Astana, Katusha, Sky, they're as blue-chip as cycling teams get, solidly backed. But HTC was more like Garmin, its future beyond the end of its latest contract with a sponsor uncertain. And Stapleton - a man who had made millions in the telecoms industry - somehow struggled to tie in a new sponsor, despite the strength of his team. The environment was breaking down. At which point people tend to pay attention to the fact that they are selling themselves short for something they no longer believe in. Thus it was with Cavendish and in the end HTC failed because Stapleton couldn't or wouldn't properly reward the geese that were laying the golden eggs.

The end of HTC was the end of an era, both for the sport and for Cavendish. For Cavendish, this was the team he'd turned pro with, the only team he'd raced to fame and glory with. For the sport it was the last link in a chain that began in Stuttgart in 1989 and evolved through various iterations of the German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom. Yes, much of their success was in the Gen-EPO years - with Bjarne Riis, Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich - and yes Telekom doped and doped big. But Telekom also helped pave the way into a cleaner future, was at the forefront of the independent anti-doping programmes that helped push the other teams and the UCI into introducing the biological passport.

The consolation was that the end coincided with Cavendish winning the World Championships and served to drive him into the loving embrace of Sky. That, alas, turned out to be the rebound shag we all need but end up regretting after the end of any long term relationship. A troubled year with Sky - adapting to a new environment, building a new sprint train, struggling to cope with different objectives - was doubled when Cavendish got struck by the Curse of Bambino: he and his partner Peta had a baby. Like all of cycling's curses - the Curse of the Rainbow Jersey, the Curse of the Yellow Jersey - the Curse of Bambino is bullshit. But it has great anecdotal evidence backing it up:

"This period of readjustment - which really was all it was - lasted for weeks. As an athlete, you're used to being - almost encouraged to be - self-absorbed, and Delilah and fatherhood released me from that inward-looking, self-obsessed spiral. In almost every interview I did that spring I was asked whether being a parent wouldn't make me ride a little more conservatively, maybe to the detriment of my sprinting."

The Curse of Bambino, though, should not detract from the real problems Cavendish encountered at Sky, was not the cause of his (relative) failure while wearing the arc en ciel stripes:

"The staff at Team Sky, I had noticed and would see more clearly at the Tour, were there to execute their designated task and think of nothing else. It was efficient, it was professional, it put others to shame - but it also wasn't a lot of fun."

The fault-line between Cavendish and Sky was amplified at the Tour, where he thought the team would be going for green and yellow, only to find that yellow was the only game in town. Doubling green and yellow is no easy task. Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault are the only riders to have left the Tour with both jerseys, but even for two riders in the one team it's no easy task. No team has pulled it off since 1997. Fittingly, that team was the Telekom squad of Ullrich and Zabel. And they had done the same thing the year before with Riis and Zabel. So you can understand Cavendish - a Telekom graduate, Zabel's heir - believing it was possible, and you can understand him expecting Sky to at least give him a shot at the target. Sky's Directeur sportif Sean Yates, though, had one task and one task only at the Tour, winning yellow. Even stage wins didn't matter:

"In our briefing on the bus before stage two to Tournai, I waited for him to talk about our plan for what was surely going to be a sprint ... and waited. Sean didn't even mention it."

Cavendish did actually win that stage, surfing through the sprint trains. And in Brive-le-Gallard at the other end of the race he took one of his most impressive stages, the team working to close down a break and Cavendish leapfrogging the breakaways just before the line. In between those two stages, though, chances were squandered, and the race for green totally ignored. Cavendish did get the pleasure of winning again on the Champs Élysées on the final day, the arc en ciel led on to the Champs by the maillot jaune, but left the Tour with his smallest haul of fluffy lions in five years.

And then came what should have been the bookend to the rainbow jersey, that Olympic gold, which Cavendish describes as having been an integral part of Project Rainbow and in explaining the lack of which Cavendish is kinder on his rivals than other members of that Team GB squad have been.

At Speed ends with Cavendish's first year with Patrick Lefevre's Omega Pharma - Quick Step, a team with a heritage equal to the Telekom squads Cavendish graduated through:

"I was attracted to the history of Patrick's teams, which had existed in various forms with various names since the 1990s, and which had traditionally thrived in the races that I'd dreamt about as a kid - Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders. Races for real men, real bike riders."

It also enabled Cavendish to reunite with comrades from his HTC days, especially Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag, and bike supplier Specialized. Much of what he says here is interesting, but at the same time this part of the story is too fresh, there's not yet enough distance for what's really important to be seen. Apart from one thing: at the 2013 Tour Cavendish had to cope with the rising talent of Marcel Kittel, who had been stealing sprints from under his nose since the ZLM Toer the previous year. The book ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts: have we seen the demise of the greatest sprinter of the last generation and the rise of the best of the next, or is the best still to come from a man who has, after all, just turned twenty-nine? Come Leeds in July we might just get the answer to that question.

* * * * *

Boy Racer took the story of Mark Cavendish's career from infancy through to twenty-three, and then in its paperback update twenty-four. At Speed covers the next four years. The subject of the book - Cavendish - is the same, but different. The first was a brisk read, racing from success to success, even the knockback at the Madison in Beijing little more than a speed-bump. Both are intense - true to their subject - but this second volume has a different pace, deserves to be digested more slowly, Cavendish puts himself on the couch and opens up about the difficulties of life at the top of the pile. Of the two, At Speed is the more introspective, probably tells us more about Cavendish the professional, shows more of what really drives him to be as intense as he is. Boy Racer might be a more enjoyable read, but At Speed is more rewarding.

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