Commentary

It's not bragging

Mark Cavendish aims to prove he's cycling's fastest racer and not just a bag of hot air

Updated: July 13, 2009, 11:28 AM ET
By Chris Jones | Special to ESPN The Magazine
Michael CavendishMike PowellCavendish was born on the Isle of Man, off the Irish coast. Fittingly, the island's highways have no speed limits.

This article appears in the July 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

He is unshaven and unsteady, standing in the parking lot outside his darkened motel room, his black eyes surveying the brown Southern California hills. His teammates, all white teeth and bulging calves, have finished their communal breakfast and greet one another with sunny good mornings. On this February day, though, Mark Cavendish remains apart. Jet-lagged after a flight from the Middle East, where he sprinted to two stage wins at the Tour of Qatar, the world's fastest cyclist is not happy, to be in California in particular.

Members of Team Columbia-Highroad, down from their headquarters in nearby San Luis Obispo, give their teammate a wide berth. They talk about him in whispers. Sorry, they say, apologizing on his behalf because they know his reputation: While Cavendish is widely regarded as cycling's fastest man, its most powerful sprinter, the 24-year-old Brit has also been called everything from classless to petulant. During a time trial in last year's Tour of California, for instance, he was vilified for passing beloved Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini with just one foot on his pedals, the cycling equivalent of a face wash. "He hasn't figured out how to behave," Cipollini said after. "He's fast, but he's still a kid." Things got worse when race officials later stripped him of a stage victory for drafting behind a chase car. "It's just bulls -- ," he fumed to the press. "Who is working this f -- ing race?"

Now, less than a week before a return to the event, his irritation is fresh. He crosses his arms and frowns at the sky. Soon enough, clouds roll in like called horses, peppering the parking lot with an unlikely shower. Among his many talents, Mark Cavendish can make it rain in Southern California.

He gets on his bike, a Scott Addict, one of the lightest frames in the world, but quickly falls behind teammates on a leisurely training ride outside the postcard-pretty village of Solvang. Something is not right. Soon enough he spits the dummy and quits, his teammates having pedaled over the horizon without him. He stands alone again, this time on the side of the road in the rain, one hand on his hip, the other holding his bike at a distance like a dirty diaper. Cavendish glares at it until a support car pulls up, driven by 40-year-old Rolf Aldag, the sporting director for Team Columbia-Highroad.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.