March 26, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by Deceuninck-QuickStep.
It’s very early days yet in the 2021 season but, already, Mark Cavendish has amassed more points than he did in 2019 and 2020 combined. Twice runner-up in races, he’s poised for his first win in years; he also wore the leader’s jersey this week in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. Cavendish’s mentor Brian Holm explains what turned things around and why he believes the rider can still win in the sport’s biggest events.
Mark Cavendish is smiling again with Deceuninck - Quick-Step. Photo © Wout Beel.
Few, if anyone, knows Mark Cavendish as well as Brian Holm. The former pro and current sports director guided him at T-Mobile/HTC between 2006 and 2011 and at Omega Pharma-QuickStep between 2013 and 2015. He has been a friend and steering hand to Cavendish, was best man at his wedding and played a role in helping him get a last-gasp contract for the 2021 season with Deceuninck - Quick-Step.
The Dane has been guiding and encouraging him this week at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in Italy, and on Tuesday watched Cavendish finish second on stage one and then take the race leader’s jersey after the stage 1b team time trial. That’s an important turnaround after several difficult seasons and, according to Holm, bigger things could well lie ahead.
“To be honest, right from the hip, I think he can take another Grand Tour stage win now,” he told Conquista on Wednesday evening. “With the way he is riding now, yes, why not? Of course [Sam] Bennett is the green guy for the Tour de France, no discussion. We did not even discuss this [Cavendish doing a Grand Tour] with the team because we first have to see how he does. But like he is riding now, for sure he would take a Grand Tour stage win.
“I am really, really convinced about that. He is back. He is back.”
It’s been three years since Cavendish last rode a three-week stage race; it’s been five since his last Grand Tour stage success. He scooped four stage victories at the 2016 Tour de France and wore the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career.
That season was an intense one mixing road and track to secure a place in the Olympics. It was also wildly successful, with Cavendish taking a silver medal in the Olympic Omnium, scooping a silver medal at the world road race championships and clocking up a total of ten season victories. However since then he had a long, lonely time in the wilderness thanks to a reoccurrence of the Epstein Barr virus and a period of depression.
His career almost ended last autumn, but Holm believes his current form is his best in years. He says the 35 year old is upbeat, motivated, and gives an example of the Manxman’s intensity and drive to do well.
“Today, honestly, I said to him on the radio, ‘Cav, I never saw you climbing like that before, like you are doing now.’ He was yelling back, ‘shut the fuck up Brian, I could climb good before, sometimes.’
“I said, ‘okay, sorry…sorry…sorry, Cav.’
“So he is greedy, he is greedy. It was nice. He really went ballistic…”
Brian Holm knows Cavendish for many years, and is watching him flourish again. Photo © Deceuninck – Quick-Step/Sigfrid Eggers
“It was a bit of a lottery, wasn’t it?”
Cavendish’s struggles were such that he had a long, difficult search for a team last autumn. There were reports that he could be forced to retire. There were also reports that he was willing to race for free, just to stay in the sport. He’s had a hugely successful career, including 30 Tour de France stage wins, and wanted to go out on his own terms rather than have things peter out quietly.
Holm admits that things were tough. “It was not looking too bright, the last few years.”
Still, he continued to believe in Cavendish, and helped to try to get him a place. “I always kept in contact with him, on and off,” he says. “When he went to Sky we were still in contact. I always liked him, from when he was a kid.
“He brought it up himself if he could come back. Of course with the last few years it was a bit of a lottery, wasn’t it? I asked my boss, Patrick Lefevere. He said, ‘my head says no, my head says yes.’ Truly it took a while. It was a lot of discussion. 80% of our people said he was over and out. But I know him, I knew something was wrong with him [before]. Honestly I think it would’ve been the wrong way to stop, for his career to end after those two tough years.
“Actually what I think doesn't really matter. But what is most important is that Patrick was thinking the same. At the end of the day he said yes. Of course, it is always easily said, ‘yeah he comes back, we will make him a cyclist again,’ but it could shoot back [backfire]. We knew that. But it seems like he came back well.”
When Cavendish signed for the team, reports suggested that the deal had been made possible through the addition of new backing. Holm confirms that money was tight and that moves were made to ensure the funds were there.
“I know a few of the sponsors personally, I know pretty well how it happened,” he says. “We have got a budget, but we are not the UAE team, we are not Ineos who can just say, ‘okay we need another €200,000.’ It doesn't happen that way with QuickStep. We have a budget, and I know my boss has to keep it because when the bank is empty, it is empty.
“Of course we had to find something, but the most important thing was having him on the team. I didn’t see the money as a big issue. I know that some of my private friends who knew him also helped a little bit in getting them [the backing] in. It was about having him [on board].”
Mark Cavendish has settled in faster than many expected, Holm included. Photo © Deceuninck - Quick-Step.
“I know he was fighting with his head sometimes, for sure”
At the time the signing was announced, Cavendish was clear about what rejoining Deceuninck - Quick-Step meant to him. “I have never hidden my affection for my time with the team,” he said. “To me this genuinely feels like I am coming home.”
Unprompted, Holm repeats that same word - home - more than once. He gives the impression that there is a strong family atmosphere, and suggests that this has played a big part in Cavendish’s renaissance.
“The staff like him. I just left the room he was having a massage in, with [soigneur Frederick] Pollentier… It’s like six, seven years ago, back to the same massage. He feels at home here. No doubt about it. Like most people, he wants to feel at home. With QuickStep, he is probably in his comfort zone.
“I had a chat with the mechanics today in the car park, and the staff really love him. The mechanic said it is like having a young, new professional around, just happy for what he is doing.”
If the team feels like family, then part of that is also due to Holm being there. He’s a mixture of a boss, a friend and a mentor, and has been a major influence over the years.
“I am close to Cav, but he has to do it himself,” he says. “With him, our relationship, we can discuss [things] like you would do with your kids. We have our discussion always, but he knows when we have our discussions it is because I like him.
“He has to do it himself. But we have to remember, he was ill also, with Epstein-Barr. And there were a few problems with him also, with Bahrain [his previous team], that they never really solved.
“When you know Mark, with his head, it can really block him when small things go wrong. Like most people, if you have a clean head, you can ride. You have to clear your mind, because of course it is a stressful sport. There is a lot of pressure.”
In fact, Holm believes that pressure played a role in the depression Cavendish spoke about. He’s long been a highly-ambitious rider but also one who needs the right environment and circumstances to thrive. Falling short of his goals would have taken a toll.
“I am not a psychologist, of course, but I know him,” he says. “It is a huge pressure those kids have, we know that also. To get the best out of them, to push the right buttons. We have a big line-up with psychologists who can help them. But of course it helps also if you know a kid for 12, 15 years; that makes everything a little bit easier. I know his family very well too. I know he was fighting with his head sometimes, for sure.
“I spoke a lot with his wife about it and of course, if we could get him back and just be happy on the bike, then he is probably happy when he is home also. So the black clouds are clearing. I don’t really see that as rocket science [Holm laughs].
“We all have some cloudy days, right? And let’s say he is famous like that…there is probably a bigger chance that you end up in a black hole, you are disappointed with yourself, you disappoint other people with your performance. There are a lot of landmines to avoid in the world of cycling, aren’t there?
“Now it is looking good…he was twice second [in races], he had the leader’s jersey. That was nice, but it was always with the idea that there was no pressure, just let him play around and be a cyclist again. And now you see him jumping around like a new professional.”
Holm is clearly encouraged by how quickly things have turned around. He notes that Cavendish was already riding well early on in Belgian races, providing signs from the off that things were back on track.
“In Nokere Koerse…okay, he crashed, but he was good. He was good too in Grand Prix Samyn, but he was maybe a little bit too excited. In Almeria he punctured five kilometres from the finish. So he was up where he has to be.
“Even here today [Wednesday’s stage two of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali – ed.] he was climbing like a little goat. Okay, he could not go with the best, but he is back. He is good. It is nice to see.
“That it came that fast honestly took me by surprise as well.”
“To see people having to eat their words again…”
The Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali concludes on Saturday with a lumpy stage to Forlì. The race profile of the event is such that there were limited chances for sprinters, with a substantial amount of climbing to be covered during the week. Cavendish’s runner-up slot on stage 1a behind the Jakub Mareczko (Vini Zabù) was the best chance for a strong result and while he would have loved to have taken his first sprint win in over three years, wearing the leader’s jersey after the stage 1b team time trial was a big boost.
Holm paints a picture of a happy rider, motivated to be back on form and also willing to help his teammates out.
“Today [Wednesday] was sort of a mountain stage,” he said. “He had the leader’s jersey, we just had five guys here, everybody else has seven. And he was the first one who said on the radio ‘I am going to pull first. I am going to pull for Mauri Vansevenant, maybe he can win the stage.’
“So you have somebody who won, I don’t know how many races, who won 30 stages at the Tour, 48 Grand Tour stages, who said to a young kid like Mauri, ‘I am going to work for you.’”
That’s a huge thing for Vansevenant, and also a reflection of Cavendish’s greater contentment. Things are going in the right direction and there are reasonable grounds to believe that big success lies ahead. Holm suggests that Cavendish could line out in the upcoming Presidential Tour of Turkey; he has taken seven stage wins there in the past, all with Quick-Step, and would have multiple opportunities to add to that haul.
Before then, racing in Italy helps to build form and also has a psychological boost.
“The main goal is to try to finish here, to maybe lose one or one and a half kilos,” says Holm. “To just have some rhythm. Sometimes racing here without the pressure of sprinting is good also. If you put a sprinter into something like this so he doesn’t have to sprint every day, just to do it for training, sit in the grupetto, that is alright also. Then he has some good training kilometres, he has massage every day, he is with the team.
“I just sat in the room with Cav and Mauri Vansevenant. First Mark had a massage and then the young Mauri did. Just sitting with the kids for a few hours is very good…you’re with the boys, listening to music, talking rubbish. That is what Cav likes.
“That is very special. You should never, ever underestimate the value of being with your teammates, and with [people like] the soigneur Pollentier. That is what we like about cycling also. I am close to 60, I still like it. Sitting in the room, having a chat about cars, about music, about the tactics, about the race today, about the race yesterday, about the stage tomorrow. When you’re out of cycling, that is what you miss the most.”
Enjoying a chat at GP Samyn in early March. Photo © Deceuninck – Quick-Step/Wout Beel
Two things are clear at this point in time. Firstly, that Cavendish is in far better form than he has been for several years. Secondly, that Holm’s belief in Cavendish seems to have paid off, that the faith he showed in him last autumn in recommending the team take him on has been proven correct.
So, this week’s known unknown is this: we know how talented Cavendish is, and what he has achieved in the past. He appears to be out of the previous wilderness and back on track. What isn’t yet clear is if he will get a start in, say, the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a España and, if so, if a stage win is on the cards.
Holm believes the potential is certainly there to notch up a 49th Grand Tour stage victory. He points out there is a long history of people dismissing Cavendish, and then being proven wrong.
“Some people like to see him fail also, of course, because he did not always make too many friends,” he laughs. “So to see him come back and people having to eat their words again…
“It is like it is, that is sport. You have some people who love you, some people who hate you. But how many times in the last, let’s say, the last 12, 13, 14 years, did people write him off? How many times did I hear before that he was done?
“I heard it every second year, he is over, he will never come back. I heard it again and again, and that is why he never really disappointed us. At least he never disappointed me…”
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