With Cavendish, 'anything is possible'

ESPN.com Illustration

LONDON -- Mark Cavendish has three gears: Fast, faster and fastest. At 27, he's a world champion with 21 Tour de France stage victories and counting, and a victory at the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day classic. He has a supermodel girlfriend, a new baby daughter and two editions of an autobiography with a sequel in the works. Fans in the United Kingdom voted Cavendish the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the athlete's equivalent of an Oscar. When he's well-positioned on a flat course, accelerating out of a bunch sprint, he's still the man to beat.

There's only one important finish line where Cavendish has yet to celebrate. On July 28, thanks to a perfect confluence of events, he'll have a chance to do that in his home country. The Olympic road cycling race will careen 152 miles through the streets of London on the first full day of the Summer Games, putting Cavendish on the hot saddle. His result is sure to set off waves of delirium or disappointment among what is arguably the world's toughest audience -- the British public.

The pressure that lonely tennis standard-bearers Tim Henman or Andy Murray have experienced over a Wimbledon fortnight could pale compared with what athletes representing Great Britain will feel during the 17 days of the London Games. Expectations are especially high in cycling, a sport that has surged in popular consciousness thanks to the medals hauled in by Team GB track cyclists in Beijing four years ago, the successes of road stars Bradley Wiggins and David Millar in recent seasons, and Cavendish's own brilliant résumé.

"I've never known any different," Cavendish says of the bull's-eye that will be on his back.

"I'm proud of my country, I love representing my country. I love pulling on the jersey with the flag I was born under. I get to do that in the world championships every year. But I grew up watching the Olympics. It's in London. That's once in a lifetime, once in a couple of lifetimes. That just speaks for itself."

Casual fans who consider Cavendish the presumptive favorite may not realize the London road race course is far from ideal for him. Although the nine circuits are largely flat, repeats of the 1.5-mile, 4.9 percent average gradient climb up Box Hill promise to be wearing. The five-man national teams are too small to control the race, especially on a course that begs for attacking and aggressive riding.

There will be no race radios and thus little or no help from directors. Most prognosticators, including Cavendish himself, think there will be several dozen riders left at the front to contend for the win. Wiggins, whose focus will be the time trial four days later, will have to conserve energy late in the race. The other riders will endeavor to help Cavendish get over Box Hill one last time in good shape, but Team GB will have no true lead-out man, so Cavendish will probably be on his own for the finale.

"It's a long shot, what we're trying to achieve, but with Mark anything is possible," said Millar, who was named to the Olympic team this week, ending years of debate over whether his 2004 doping confession and subsequent suspension should keep him from competing. Now an ardent anti-doping spokesman, Millar will race in London partly because Cavendish insisted on it.

"He's captured the hearts and minds of the cycling audience in the U.K., but he won't capture the wider kudos unless he gets the Olympic gold," Millar said by phone before the Tour de France. "One of the reasons Mark's so good is he has this chip on his shoulder to prove he's the best. And it's the London Olympics. It seems like fate, as a reigning world champion, that the opportunity is there. I think it's on his cycling bucket list, if you like."

The brash, outspoken Cavendish appears to have hurtled through the past few years at a velocity that can't be sustained. As he is fond of saying, he doesn't win races anymore, he only loses them.

Yet fame hasn't made him any more guarded. During an April interview with ESPN.com, a posse of agents, publicists, sponsors and team staff joins him around a table in a conference room at a posh hotel, but Cavendish speaks freely, punctuating his remarks with colorful language and methodically working his way through the bowl of Jelly Bellies in front of him.

"It's a pace I set," he says. "It's not out of my control. Now it's a big thing if I don't win. Another person loses nine [races] and wins one, and they're making it. It's become so normal for me that I have to set new goals. I've never, ever sat and admired what I've done."

After winning Milan-San Remo, one of the biggest days of a big career, Cavendish slept at a Gatwick Airport hotel, flew to his home on the Isle of Man the next day, unpacked, repacked and flew to Poland to race in the track cycling world championships.

"Most guys go out and party in Monaco that night, you know what I mean?" Cavendish says. "You can't. You'll never move forward. Some guys have won big races and never moved forward from them."

Cavendish hasn't slowed his tempo this year. In fact, he's among a select few riders who will try to complete the Tour with a sprint win in the final stage on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 22 and contend for the Olympic podium six days later.

The cocky kid from the Isle of Man

On this particular Friday in April, Cavendish is riding very, very slowly. Dressed in the distinctive world champion's rainbow jersey, he's rolling along a gravel path next to a Jaguar XF Sportbrake as a film crew records the scene. The iconic British luxury brand is one of the sponsors of Team Sky, whose roster is led by Cavendish and Wiggins, and Jaguars are among the fleet used by team directors and staff this season.

Lush green lawns dotted with asters surround Cavendish as he and his Sky teammate Juan Antonio Flecha do several takes for the crew filming on the grounds of the Syon Park estate. Across the lane, the Union Jack flies in front of the residence of the Duke of Northumberland. After fulfilling his leading-man duties, Cavendish retreats to the adjacent Waldorf Astoria hotel, where he and Flecha help unveil a Jaguar before an assemblage of automotive and cycling media. Lunch is served on a white-tablecloth buffet attended by waiters in formal wear.

It is a long way from the Irish Sea outpost where a sturdy fireplug of a boy followed his younger brother into a local bike racing league.

Cavendish grew up on the ruggedly beautiful Isle of Man, population 85,000, which lies an often bumpy three-hour ferry trip from Liverpool, Belfast or Dublin, or an hour-plus puddle-jumper flight from London. The island has the world's oldest continuously functioning parliament and no speed limits on its roads. That independent spirit is mirrored in the life of the island's most famous citizen, whose nickname is the Manx Missile.

"It's me home," Cavendish says in an accent that an American ear could easily mistake for the Beatles' Liverpudlian lilt. "Always will be." He owns houses in Essex, outside London, and Tuscany, but the Isle of Man is the only place he can be "just Mark," he says.

At age 14, Cavendish had already won youth national titles on the road and track when he approached a 22-year-old rising Scottish star who was competing at the annual Isle of Man race week. Millar, then riding for the French Cofidis team, recounts the meeting in his book, "Racing Through the Dark."

"A cocky little Manx kid came up and asked me for my autograph," Millar wrote. He signed a race cap for the youngster and posed for a photograph. "'You've got plenty of time, just have fun; don't take it too seriously 'til you're older,'" he told Cavendish.

Little did Millar know how their careers would later intertwine, or that Cavendish, by then a fellow pro, would knock on his hotel door years later and present him with a framed copy of that same photo. "You have a lot of kids come up to you, and sometimes you think maybe one of these kids will be a great cyclist in the future, or it would be funny if this were a kid who actually ends up making something of himself," Millar said. "But to have one of those kids end up being 10 times better than you, and you being at their service within the timespan of your career is a bit surreal."

Cavendish was a competitive ballroom dancer as a teenager, but once he discovered his passion for the bike, he found himself in a characteristic hurry. By 2004, he had been invited to the British Cycling Academy and came under the tutelage of coach Rod Ellingworth -- a relationship that continues to this day and is indisputably the bedrock of Cavendish's career.

"He's been my mentor since I was 18, and he's the only one who'll tell me off still, as well," Cavendish says. "He told me off last week. I was mortified; I went all red when he told me. It was about slacking on training. It was so simple and he puts it in such a way -- 'I'm not angry at you, I'm just disappointed, you've let yourself down.' It's horrible."

Cavendish signed with the team then known as T-Mobile for the 2007 season and earned his first pro win on the road that spring. American team manager Bob Stapleton took over ownership of the team the following year and the rest is literally history. Stapleton's High Road organization built a powerful, efficient sprint "train" that put Cavendish in a position to succeed, which he did, consistently, in the biggest races. He has won multiple stages at all three Grand Tours and last year captured the Tour de France green jersey, the honor that goes to the rider collecting the most total points over the three grueling weeks and generally rewards the best sprinter.

Over six years in the peloton, Cavendish's personality has been on display in all its complexity. No one expresses more gratitude for teamwork; no one rants harder when he's angry. Loyal, self-deprecating, earthy, generous and impulsive, Cavendish occasionally gets in his own way, as he did when he made an obscene gesture coming across the finish line at the Tour of Romandie two years ago. (He apologized, and was withdrawn from the race by his team.)

Cavendish's two most memorable wins have come in one-day races. He triumphed at the 2009 Milan-San Remo classic, where the length (185 miles) and hill climbs are challenging for pure speedsters. And last year, in what proved to be a dry run for team chemistry if not course tactics, Team GB helped Cavendish power to victory at the world championships in Copenhagen.

That team effort was "absolutely part of the Olympic plan," Ellingworth says, in the sense that it tested group chemistry. But he noted the Olympic race will be run on more of a "heavy, wearing-down" course. To that end, he has been putting the 5-foot-9-inch Cavendish through more climbing-specific training and encouraging him to shed 10 pounds or so -- always a struggle for the stocky rider.

Last August, Cavendish won the "test event" on a shortened, 87-mile version of the Olympic course. Ellingworth believes if Cavendish comes through the Tour without serious injury, he'll be primed for the Olympics, even on a mere five days' rest. "Normally, he comes off the Tour really well," the coach said. He added that there is no plan to withdraw Cavendish early.

Cavendish's life hasn't been without its potholes. His parents divorced while he was still a schoolkid. He was the only track cyclist representing Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics who came away without a medal. Most seriously, Cavendish's brother Andy has been jailed since 2010 on marijuana and cocaine trafficking charges. Mark had just visited him the day before our April interview, bringing photographs of the new baby, and is confident his brother can turn his life around.

"He actually asked me, 'Does it ever bother you? I know you get asked questions about me and I do feel real bad, lad ... Do you ever resent me for it?'" Cavendish recalls. "And I said, 'It makes no difference, you're me brother and everyone makes a mistake. I just want you out. Now if you do it again, I'll resent you.' And you know when you can see the belief in someone's eyes?

"It's hard for me. I'm away. Without being physically there for someone, it's hard to help them. You can throw as much money as you want at someone, but a hug means more than any present."

'I've got to make it count'

Cavendish publicly lobbied to be named the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, an honor widely known by the acronym SPOTY and decided by a phone-in fan vote on live national television. His competition in 2011 included distance running star Mo Farah and golfer Darren Clarke. As their names were called for third and second place in the balloting, respectively, Cavendish was so tense he flinched when retired five-time Olympic rowing champion Steve Redgrave put his hand on the rider's shoulder in early congratulation.

"I'm a control freak," Cavendish says. "Everything I win, it's because I've meticulously planned it, my team's meticulously planned it, and you've executed it to what you can; you're in control of the results you get. Something that's voted or bestowed upon you, it's out of your control. If people appreciate and buy into what you've done, it means a lot."

But the most significant off-road event of Cavendish's life occurred in early April, when his girlfriend, Peta Todd, gave birth to their daughter, Delilah Grace. Cavendish is clearly bonkers about fatherhood. Todd posted this photo on her Twitter feed when they had a family reunion during the Giro d'Italia.

"It's the only thing in the world that all logic goes out the window," Cavendish says, his normal rumble of a voice getting even huskier. "It's the only thing in the world that you wouldn't even have to think about jumping in front of a train. Every day, you see yourself in something you've made. You think you know, and I thought I'd know, but it's something you can't ever set yourself up for. I love it. I love it. It doesn't matter what I've achieved, what I will achieve. Nothing compares.

"If I'm away from her, I've got to make it count. I want to do more so I can give her a good life and make her proud. This s--- of, 'You won't take risks' -- I won't take reckless risks, but I'll take more calculated risks. I've never taken reckless risks, anyway."

That emotion doesn't surprise Millar, himself a relatively new dad. Although Millar's Garmin team and Cavendish's Columbia-HTC-High Road squads feuded fiercely at times over the years, the two remained good friends. Cavendish never wavered from his stance that Millar should be allowed to compete in the Olympics and his presence as road captain -- the term for a rider who takes charge of tactics during a race -- was crucial if Team GB was to have any shot at a medal in the London road race.

"There's a lot more to Mark than meets the eye, especially the public eye," Millar said. "When you get to know him well, there's a lot of depth to him, and that's a rare thing in an athlete from my experience. I appreciate that and it transcends the surface issues that go on between teams and rivalries on the professional circuit. He's a loving little guy at heart.

"Mark was very public in his support of me and wasn't scared of what people thought. He said the same thing privately and publicly. I felt that I didn't want to let the team down or him down as an individual."

Months ago, there was talk of Cavendish defending his green jersey at the Tour de France, but as Team Sky's roster came together, it became clear that putting Wiggins on the podium would take priority. Cavendish spoke publicly of ratcheting down his goals for stage wins and making peace with the fact that his recent training might rob him of the final explosive pop he's always had in bunch sprints. In the first week of the Tour, however, he has already won a stage -- "freelancing" without a sprint train to help him -- and looks like a man who is not happy to settle for anything but first place.

On paper, in lore, an Olympic medal is perhaps the third most important achievement in men's cycling, behind an overall Tour win or a world championship. But the London road race has been transformed into something extraordinary by dint of its setting. An estimated two million spectators packed the city center to watch the 2007 Tour time trial prologue. At least that many will line the Olympic route, waiting to see if this compact, ruddy-faced, driven athlete can deliver again.

He welcomes that. He wouldn't have it any differently.