Friend, mentor, former sports director and best man at the Manxman’s wedding, Brian Holm and Mark Cavendish don’t always see eye-to-eye. A strong exchange between two fascinating characters.
Brian Holm: You have been at the top now for ten years. That must be stressful. Most cyclists stay at the top for five or six years. It is one thing to reach the top, but another to stay there. So, for ten years in a row, that must be pressure mentally.
Mark Cavendish: To be honest, I don’t know any different.
But sometimes I felt the pressure was freaking you out.
But I used it. Instead of letting the weight of it hold me down, I used it as a force. It is hard, but I have always been hard in the head. I had to be the best at everything at school – I didn’t always win, but I had to. Whether it was spelling tests or football. And that’s how I am now.
It is something I take pride in. Sometimes I think people don’t understand what it’s like, but then I’m lucky they don’t understand – that would make my job a hell of a lot harder. They’d all be doing it.
When people say you are on your way out… Just because you don’t win five stages, it doesn’t mean you are not the best. Just that you haven’t won as many in one year. It’s as simple as that.
How many times in the past ten years, people have said: ‘Cav is over. He is done?’
Every year. It’s all I ever hear. Even seven years ago.
They say: ‘He is too lazy, he is too fat…’
But you can’t say it seven years in a row. But they’ll say it every season until it is my last year, then say they were right. I don’t read it anymore – I used to – but you still hear that stuff. I say I don’t read Twitter, but when you are sat in an airport for five hours, you do it. Most of the time it makes me laugh.
Not always, eh? When you were beaten at the Tour, you were getting a massage and we were having a chat, laughing a bit, then I picked up my phone and said: ‘By the way, you heard what they wrote about you? Too much chocolate, too big a playboy, too big cars, blah blah.’
I just knew you would get better the next day. Fuck those bastards. Tomorrow I am going to win. And that worked on you. That was very interesting. You couldn’t do this with many riders. There is a risk that when you read shit about yourself, it can crack you. But with you, it was different.
Ten years in a row, winning stages at the Tour… Well, the only two Tours I haven’t won stages at are the two I crashed out of: Harrogate  and this one . You can only really aim for one stage win a year, and if you don’t manage that, it’s not really a failure. One Tour stage in a lifetime makes a career, let alone one a year. And I built my whole career around the Tour.
Every time I have been nervous it has been in my head. Last year, the training was right, I had done everything right to balance the Tour and the track [Olympic Games]. This year was more of an unknown, because I knew I hadn’t done my ideal preparation for the Tour. Normally, physically I know I have done what I can, so if I don’t win, then I can’t understand it.
I am like Froomey: the best in the world: I have done what I needed to do, why aren’t I winning? I need that head thing, that anger. This year, I was a lot calmer, I wasn’t so bothered.
I have a nice life, I am happy with my life, but I work fucking hard. People see nice cars, nice watches – they don’t see that I am on my own, away from my family, for over 200 days in the year. Last year was 300 days…
Yah, but everybody is doing the same, eh?
Not really, because they go home between races. I don’t go home.
Not many people thought you could pull off the Olympics and Tour de France double last year [Cavendish won four stages, then a silver medal in Rio].
I’m lucky that the people that matter believed in it. That makes it even more astounding. No one thought I could do it. Worlds road race, Worlds track, Olympics, yellow jersey – no one has ever done that.
That’s why I am sick this year. My wife said if somebody had told you that you would pay for what you did last year the following one, would you still have done it? And I said yes. Actually, Rolf Aldag said it last year. He said: “You know you’re going to fuck yourself next year. It’s too much”.
He said the same to me also.
And he was right. And that shows Rolf’s experience. He never tried to talk me out of it. He is quite realistic – he’ll say if I can’t. You’re the opposite. You sometimes make me go for shit I don’t want to. Although I still win anyway! Remember that stage in the Giro? It was 2013… or 2014.
I noted it down. You can talk about it now.
Okay. It was 2013 and I had won… I don’t know how many stages, and it was a 230km stage [to Cherasco]. It was flat most of the day but with these fucking 10k climbs at the end. A break went, 15 people, and I knew you would be cross – I was going for the red jersey.
Brian says [on the radio]: “Right, we start riding”, and I came in: “no, we don’t ride. I’m not going for it today. Give me a break. Let me ride in today.”
He didn’t answer me. He gets on the radio and says “Julien [Vermote] and Iljo [Keisse], just fucking ride now!” He didn’t even answer me. And they rode the whole day, everyone in the gutter, crosswinds, and we come to these climbs and I have to ride now, even though I don’t want to, because they’ve ridden. And it’s because of this prick.
I had to get over these climbs – bam, bam, bam – forty guys and me, and I won the stage. It’s not often in my career – maybe five times – when I had to get off my bike at the end and sit against the barriers. And this was one of them.
I was so pissed. My desire to win is such that I hurt myself, every day. I am not meant to do this shit. I do so much damage if I go over the limit, but I can do it. If you go anaerobic for a bit, like track sprinters, you do yourself damage, it takes ages to recover. That’s my body type. To do that for a long period of time, just at threshold, when you are out of sugar… I can’t explain it…
It was horrible, and I was so pissed.
I have got to admit, he was angry, because Peta called me after the stage and said I don’t think you are best man for the wedding anymore…
Then, the next two days, I was out the arse. They weren’t sprint days or anything, but I knew then I had done so much damage I would have to suffer. I couldn’t even sit in the gruppetto.
For me, that was also a very special win. Normally, nobody could have done it.
People blow when they see me [in the finale], they crack.
Vermote still talks about it, and Keisse, and [Jérome] Pineau. Our relationship was all right, at least after 48 hours…
There are days I know I can win, but I know it will be detrimental to other days. I am quite calculating, I know my capabilities, and the consequences.
On a mountain day, only a fool would finish 20 minutes down if there is a 50-minute time cut. Only a fucking idiot would do that. You might as well finish on 48 minutes, you know? It’s about risk and reward.
I knew the chances of me going out of the race in the days after that were quite high.
Maybe you took the stages after, I can’t remember…
Leading into the next question, maybe you remember you told me once, one of your biggest dreams was to win… remember what it was?
Yes, in the break.
I kind of did when I won the Nationals . There were three of us, and I had some seconds between. If I had really wanted, I could have won that alone, I think.
It is hard. Cycling has changed now, not just on a physiological level. It is very rare for a break to go to the finish, let alone with someone who isn’t a breakaway specialist.
But when you said it, I was thinking of Paris-Roubaix, Harelbeke, Wevelgem, Three Days of De Panne – crosswinds, rain, hailstones…
It would be easier in this kind of team [Dimension Data] but when I was riding for the big teams, I got paid a lot of money. And they didn’t pay me to try something, but to do a job, which was win.
You are paid to sprint. But I’m a pretty decent bike rider, I think. I can do stuff – you know I can.
Well, that’s why I am asking.
I would like to do it. Talking about how I can’t do anything but sprint is bullshit. I am paid to sprint. What is the point in risking not winning? Do you think I like sitting there, in eighth position behind my team, the whole day? It is quite monotonous, but it’s a job.
I have got more freedom here to do it, but I am not paid the same I used to be. Everything is harder. It is only if the peloton wants an easy day that a break stays away.
If I see a big-name sprinter wanting to go in a break – not Sagan – let’s say Marcel Kittel, I’d say go on. He is going to be an easy guy to catch. We are not riding with Oxford University graduates, though, are we? They see a sprinter, and they don’t think about who it is, they do what they are told. If you have five sprinters in a break, you are probably going to have an easy day, so let them go.
I have to go when it is relatively flat, and as a sprinter, they are not going to let me go.
Or, again, like De Panne, Harelbeke, you could spring up from behind when the crosswind comes.
I didn’t get to do it this year. And with Quick Step, I never got to do it, because they wouldn’t let me. [He won a stage at De Panne in 2013 for Quick Step.]
Greipel mixes it up a bit.
It’s good that he does it. And that he races hard throughout the year. But anyone can attack on the Kanarieberg [Tour of Flanders], anyone can attack after the Marc Madiot sector [number 13 at Paris-Roubaix] – well, not anyone, but you know what I mean. They are not race-winning moves. I don’t want to attack just to get on TV. I want to attack to win.
Erik Zabel was third at Paris-Roubaix ; Sean Kelly, even though he was a sprinter, could win at the Classics, so it seems like cycling has changed a bit. Everyone stays more within their speciality. The all-rounders, the Swiss knifers, who could do a bit of everything, have sort of gone.
Gent-Wevelgem is not the same race that Cipollini won. Gent-Wevelgem now is harder than Harelbeke, or even Flanders in the past.
Read Part II here. Extract from Rouleur issue 17.8