Mark Cavendish interview: I will ride again – but Tour de France retirement plans are up in the air

Mark Cavendish of The United Kingdom and Astana Qazaqstan Team during the 12th Tour of Oman 2023, Media Day / #TourofOman / on February 09, 2023 in Muscat, Oman.

‘I don’t know when. But I feel good,’ Mark Cavendish says about his return to racing after a crash in the Tour de France – Getty Images/Alex Broadway

A haunting sense of finality hung over Mark Cavendish’s exit from the Tour de France, as he left the peloton outside Limoges with his collarbone broken and his designs on a record 35th stage win dashed, possibly for good. Except little with this endlessly complex character is quite as definitive as it seems. Three weeks on from the crash, his healing has advanced to the point where he can contemplate being back in the saddle. Could we even see him race again this year? “I’d imagine so, yeah,” he grins. “I don’t know when. But I feel good.”

He has had sessions on his indoor bike already, with his five-year-old son Casper alongside. A meeting with his surgeon is scheduled next week. The gnawing question is whether he can be persuaded to make one last tilt next summer, when he will be 39, at breaking the tie with Eddy Merckx to become the tour’s most decorated stage winner. His team, Astana-Qazaqstan, have offered him an extension, but Cavendish is circumspect about committing. After all, he gave a tearful press conference in May, flanked by his family, declaring this would be his last season as a professional cyclist. With his wife Peta sitting only a few feet away throughout this interview, he is wary of giving any suggestion that he is about to put her through the wringer once more.

Britain's cyclist Mark Cavendish with his wife Peta Todd and their daughter hold a press conference in Coccaglio, northern Italy

Cavendish announced his retirement earlier this year – AP/Antonio Calanni

His past week has been emotionally gruelling enough. This week, he watched the premiere of a Netflix documentary chronicling his path through the maelstrom of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and clinical depression so severe that his doctors feared he might self-harm or worse. We know by now that this ordeal had a happy ending, with his quartet of stage triumphs in 2021 drawing him level with Merckx, but the film is still a bruising watch, with Cavendish disclosing a sense of “worthlessness” at his lowest ebb and Peta acknowledging how she felt powerless to help.

‘I thought depression was an excuse’

“You’re not really aware of what’s going on with the people around you when you’re suffering,” says Cavendish, who admits that he could be a nightmare to live with. “You’re empty. You’re not even aware of how it’s affecting you. But I learned things from the film from Peta’s perspective. It was the stuff that hurt her that hit home the most.”

Peta, a former glamour model, married the man who would become cycling’s greatest sprinter 10 years ago. The intervening decade has produced four children and a catalogue of indelible sporting moments, from four successive wins on the Champs-Élysées to a crowning glory in Rome on his farewell this year to the Giro d’Italia. But the film illustrates how there has been profound bleakness, too, not least when Peta called Dr Helge Riepenhof, a Hamburg-based specialist in rehabilitation, in horror at her husband’s mental collapse, lamenting: “I don’t know where he has gone.

Mark Cavendish of The United Kingdom and Astana Qazaqstan Team celebrates at finish line as stage winner during the 106th Giro d'Italia 2023, Stage 21 a 126km stage from Rome to Rome

Cavendish took yet another Grand Tour stage victory in Rome earlier this year – Getty Images/Stuart Franklin

Cavendish takes a long pause before addressing this episode, weighing any words about depression carefully. “I was never really a believer,” he says. “I thought it was an excuse, something you could snap out of. When people said that they suffered, I never understood how. It’s the solitude you find yourself in. That can lead to all sorts of thoughts. It doesn’t matter where you’re at in your life, what you do as a profession or what background you’re from. This is about a chemical imbalance, and people can relate to that. You can feel so alone, but if you would talk, you’d be surprised at how much you have in common.”

He reflects how, throughout his most traumatic period in 2018 and 2019, when EBV drained him of all energy, he contemplated walking away from the sport altogether. Dr Riepenhof admits the fears for his wellbeing were grave: “Mark and I made a deal. I said, ‘Before you do something to yourself, call me.’”

“I want people to understand that in the middle of that spiral down, there’s a ladder,” Cavendish explains. “And you can get on that ladder and climb up. You just need to keep good people around you, people who have an interest in you.”

‘I’m not about to hold grudges’

There is a wariness here about striking too maudlin a tone. “There are those in a lot worse situations than me,” he says. “I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m very privileged to have had the life I’ve had. What we want to show through the film is how depression can affect anyone in the world. Although I would never wish it on anyone, I can now understand it. Would I rather have never suffered? Of course. But I’m happy I can understand.”

The illumination of his psychological torment is far from the only strand to Cavendish’s on-screen confessional. There is also a certain amount of score-settling, particularly when it comes to Doug Ryder, the South African ex-cyclist who did not select him for Dimension Data’s team at the 2018 Tour de France. “Who’s Mark Cavendish?” he asks Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, receiving a long and detailed answer. “Who’s Doug Ryder?” he adds, only to hear – much to his satisfaction – nothing back.

When pressed on what happened to this relationship, he takes an interminably long time to reply. Peta clears her throat nervously in the background. “I’m not about to hold grudges,” he says, eventually. “I’m lucky to be able to move forward, and to win. If you start looking backwards negatively, it’s not constructive to anything.”

He indicates that the film, subtitled Never Enough, is best understood as a search for identity beyond his status as an incomparable sprinter. “You learn what’s important. Winning bike races is my job and I love it, don’t get me wrong. But it is still my job. My purpose now is to be a husband and a father more than anything else.”

TDF-2008-FRA-CYCLING-SPRINT...Britain's Mark Cavendish (2ndR) (Columbia -ex-High Road/US) jubilates on the finish line,

Cavendish holds the joint record for most Tour de France stage wins – Getty Images/Pascal Pavani

Cavendish harbours such a belligerent streak as an athlete that he has long derived motivation from proving his detractors wrong. There was no shortage of dismissive expert opinion about his comeback in 2021, with the disgraced Lance Armstrong arguing on his podcast that he had no hope of capturing a single stage, never mind four. How much happiness did he take from confounding these predictions?”

“Nowhere near as much as I would have done previously. At one point, this was really a driving factor in what I did. But now, honestly, it’s not.”

“Your level of self-assurance was there,” Peta tells him. “You always knew.”

“Yeah, I thought that as long as I had put in the work I knew I needed to do, then I couldn’t do more.”

What Cavendish needs to decide, over the coming months, is whether he has enough in reserve to carry on, scripting an ending far more cathartic than his crash on that anonymous stretch of road in southwestern France. If you listen to him carefully, you are left in little doubt he is tempted. “I was in good form,” he says. “And it was just a freak accident. So, you’ve got to stay pragmatic. The job is to try to get fixed as quickly as possible and race my bike again.” For all that he has committed his life story to film, often in unflinching detail, he is adamant that there is one more chapter still to be written.

You might also like...