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Mark Cavendish has announced his decision to retire at the end of this season, saying he “lived the dream” across an extraordinary 20-year professional career.
Speaking flanked by his family at a press conference in Coccaglio on Monday’s final rest day at the Giro d’Italia, where Cavendish is competing for his team, Astana, the Manx rider, 38, said he was retiring to spend more time with them and less time on the road, although he would certainly continue to work in the sport.
He added: “Cycling’s been my life for over 25 years. I’ve lived an absolute dream. The bike has given me the opportunity to see the world and meet incredible people, a lot of whom I’m proud to call friends.
“I love the sport more than you can even imagine and I can’t see myself going too far from it, that’s for sure.”
Cavendish has nothing left to prove
There are few journalists in cycling who have not experienced a sharp word from Mark Cavendish at one point or another. Tales are legion. My own favourite involves a colleague who left the media centre towards the end of a stage of the Tour of Britain one year, for a scheduled appointment with the Manxman, only to arrive at Cavendish’s bus without knowing the result of the stage.
Late for the interview, without signal on his phone, and unwilling to admit he did not know what had just occurred in the race he was supposed to be covering, he tried to wing it, mumbling something vague along the lines of: “So … reasonably happy with that, Mark?”
“Are you a f—— c—?” came the response. It turned out Cavendish had crashed in the sprint.
Cavendish is notoriously spiky. He can be prickly if you catch him in a bad mood. He can be aggressive. He is also one of the most compelling sportspeople this country has ever produced. And one of the most talented.
There was a period in his career when you knew with near-certainty that if Cavendish was in a bunch sprint, he would win it. Between 2007 and 2015, he racked up 133 victories, including the 2011 world title in Copenhagen, stages of all three grand tours, and victory at Milan-San Remo in 2009. Those who do not follow cycling probably do not appreciate just what a staggering achievement that is.
Cavendish is the greatest sprinter the sport has known. And he is not just a sprinter, either. He is a canny racer and tactician. Cavendish has twice been national road champion. Indeed, he is riding at the current Giro d’Italia in the British champion’s jersey. He has won three Madison world titles on the track.
Fate and ill luck meant he never won the Olympic gold medal he craved, and which he knew the British public set so much store by. He missed out on the track in 2008, when he and “older brother” Bradley Wiggins really ought to have won, and again on the road in 2012, when his team-mates were unable to deliver him to a sprint he would surely have won. He took silver in the omnium at Rio 2016. But the lack of that bauble made no difference to cycling fans. His standing in the sport is unquestioned.
Cavendish has mellowed a bit in his dotage. As a father, a husband, and a rider who has come back countless times (the list is endless: two years out with Epstein-Barr virus in 2017 and 2018; a shoulder injury that continues to give him pain; clinical depression, a subject on which he opened up during lockdown; the horrific violent robbery he and his family endured in late 2021) he has a greater perspective on life and cycling.
But one thing that has never changed is the fact that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Cavendish is passionate, emotional, fiercely loyal to his friends and team-mates, as well as quick to anger. It was why his extraordinary comeback Tour de France in 2021, when, after three years without a victory of any sort, he won four stages to draw level with the great Eddy Merckx as the most successful Tour stage winner of all time, was so rapturously received. Like him or loathe him, Cavendish is box office.
His press conference on Monday’s second rest day at the Giro, his wife Peta and children by his side, was in keeping with his second coming. After years on the road, living out of hotels, training at his base in Quarrata in Tuscany, where friend and neighbour, the former MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow, would sometimes moto-pace for him, it was, he said, time to spend more time with his family.
“Today is Casper’s fifth birthday,” Cavendish reflected, pointing to his son, who is a chip off the block, completely obsessed with bikes. “It’s important I can be around for all of their birthdays from now on.”
Cavendish will have one more chance to claim a 17th Giro stage win in Caorle on Wednesday. But it is, of course, this summer’s Tour where all eyes will be on him. Can he get that 35th stage win that would lift him clear of Merckx? Cavendish famously loathes being asked about “the record”, which, he says, has only become a thing because others have made it so. He insisted again on Monday that he would try the same whether he was aiming for No 35 or No 19. But of course he would love it.
He will have to do it without the help of a recognised sprint train. Astana, whom Cavendish joined this year after a career racing for Highroad, Team Sky, QuickStep and Dimension Data, do not have any great sprint pedigree and Cavendish is yet to win this year, often being left isolated in the final kilometres. But he looks to have the legs, if he can just latch on to the right wheel. He has come mighty close at this Giro.
Whether he does or does not, it changes little. Cavendish has nothing left to prove to anyone. In 2016 Telegraph Sport tried to rank the top 10 British cyclists of all time. Cavendish came in second behind Wiggins. Of course, such rankings are fatuous. It is impossible to compare across eras and disciplines. But one thing is clear, there will never be another like Mark Cavendish.
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