at speed - my life in the fast lane. mark cavendish. ebury press hardback 313pp illus. £20

mark cavendish at speed

it's a strange but true fact that many actors appearing in comedy shows aren't the least bit funny. obviously they're funny when playing the designated character in the tv or stage show, but that's predominantly due to a well written script. the rest is down to a mastery of their craft and a heightened sense of timing. those who achieve fame and fortune in this manner often find themselves confused with their characters when met in person at the freezer section of their local supermarket. i think many of us would find it hard to separate doctor sheldon cooper from jim parsons who plays the part.

it's a confusion that seeps into other corners of public life. in the heyday of the world wrestling federation, who'd have bet against the baddies being of similar character in real life. mostly, however, they disappointed by being thoroughly pleasant and charitable fellows when not acting rather gruesomely in the ring. though i'm content to make this observation and point it out as if personally unaffected, nothing could be further from the truth.

though it may not always have been thus, professional cycling is currently home to a variety of separate disciplines, if for no other reason than the media have a great love of pigeonholing its various participants. those who fail to startle on the climbs or in the sprints are designated domestiques, while those who do can be either grimpeurs or spriinters, the latter often being characterised as the mick mcmanuses of the velocipedinal universe. i can only attribute this labelling of the latter to the bumping and barging that is a part of getting to the line first, accompanied by all manner of grimacing en-route. sprinting is often portrayed as a classic demonstration of brute force and ignorance, even though any competent analysis would prove otherwise.

it brings me great shame, then, to admit the very worst in relation to mark cavendish's 'at speed', appearing only a handful of years after his 'boy racer' occupied the bookshelves. if you consider how many years it took for a book to appear about robert millar, to have two in rapid succession about cavendish seems to be not only over-egging the pudding, but a serious case of rank opportunism. i'm not a great fan of the sprinting profession in the first place, and though i admire his tenacity, i can't say that cavendish would number amongst my favourite riders. so despite having been promised receipt from ebury of a review copy, the fact that it had failed to arrive well over a week later, did not give me any real cause for concern. i had resolved not to bother contacting to enquire as to its whereabouts.

but then it turned up.

unlike many of the recent outpourings by britain's cycling fraternity, at speed appears genuinely to have been written by cavendish himself; no sign of a ghost writer or collaborator anywhere. however, i find it hard to forgive the modern cliche of starting with the end; chapter one, though well narrated, concerns the very same subject as that of rod ellingworth's rainbow project; the world championship jersey. i'm partial to a more chronological scheme of things. (i should point out that, in fact, his world championship victory is not actually the finsihing point of at speed).

such personal prejudice however, is mitigated by a rather fine narrative. ellingworth referred to cavendish's uncanny sense of recall, even from the midst of a 60kph + sprint for the line, a skill that is much on display throughout the book.

'One-point five and I've lost my lead-out man. One-point four and I'm boxed. one-point three and Stannard's on the front... Gossy lets me past but I'm not looking for Gee any more. I know that Gossy will come under me before the last corner, then I'll swing onto his wheel.'

the book, despite its out of contect first chapter, leads us from cav's last two seasons with columbia htc, where his disappointment with owner bob stapleton is made perfectly clear. when telekom pulled their name from the jerseys, it seems that stapleton was relying upon their having paid the remaining contracted sponsorship monies to augment the paltry amounts that cavendish maintains were provided by both columbia clothing and htc. that the team was achieving exemplary results across the season was seen as rather iniquitous in the light of the exposure garnered by the team sponsors for relatively little outlay.

cavendish, with some justification, felt his performances deserved an increase in remuneration, to which stapleton seemed less than keen to acquiesce. if the team was achieving above its weight on the current budget, and cavendish and others were tied into at least a further year's contract, where, to be quite blunt, was his financial motivation?

meantime there was the not inconsiderable matter of project rainbow and the winning of the world championship in copenhagen. it's slightly unfortunate that this book arrives around the same time as ellingworth's, for though the latter deals almost exclusively and at length with the preparations and subsequent planned for success, at speed reiterates and echoes much of that written by ellingworth. granted, not every purchaser of this volume will have also bought the other, but i can't help feeling that the surfeit of recent cycling books are endlessly retreading the same tyre.

it is a matter of history now that on the demise of htc and the end of mark's contract with stapleton, he joined the dream team by uniting with fellow brit, bradley wiggins at team sky. the gloss, however, took not long to lose its lustre as the 2012 tour de france hove into view, when the realisation dawned that the team was either incapable (unlikely) or unwilling to divide its efforts in a quest to win yellow and green in the same race.

'at speed' isn't just about cycling however. in between changing teams, negotiating contracts and planning stage wins, cavendish had time to have his head turned by the woman who is now his wife and mother of his young daughter. like many blokes used to the bachelor life, he underlines the wholesale change in outlook on becoming a father for the first time, and pays commendable tribute to peta's fortitude. 'Over the next 17 hours Peta put my pain threshold to shame and made me glow with pride. At 10:30pm we finally had our beautiful baby girl: Delilah Grace Cavendish.'

...'I'd been under the impression that 'believing in better', as per the BskyB motto, was going to be about big ambitions, pursuing nearly impossible dreams, defying history and conventional wisdom.I felt sad and disappointed that we were already accepting compromises even before arriving in Liege for the Grand Depart. perhaps many of us were naive in believing that having signed both cavendish and wiggins, sir brailsford had his sights firmly set on both yellow and green. in fact, in retrospect, with froome in the team, perhaps he could have taken a look at the polka dots as well. however, unlike the telekom team of the late 1990s, when zabel and ulrich were both taking care of business, brailsford was apparently intent on making good his promise to put a british rider on the top step of the podium in paris. any other jerseys would be left to their own fate.

the 2012 tour is too much a part of recent history to need reiterating here, despite the fact that cavendish does exactly that. there have been so many books capturing the moment, that i was of a mind to skip these chapters. but such is cavendish's captivating writing style, i'm rather glad i didn't. that legendary sense of recall and a scarcely disguised contempt for his directeur sportif, sean yates, offers a viewpoint unheralded in any other accounts of the time. though cavendish maintains ...'I was delighted for Brad and thrilled to have contributed to such a historic moment for British cycling' i remain to be convinced, for only a few lines further on he says 'At the same time, I knew that I deserved better. Prioritising yellow over green was of course logical...(however) Ignoring the points competition and near enough ignoring me altogether, though, was not something I could accept.'

the disaster that was the olympic road race is narrated with both less enthusiasm and extensiveness than the previous year's world championship, though it is one of the few accounts of the race i have read that does not lay the blame squarely upon every other nation apart from britain. yes, he points out that one or two countries worked less hard than had been originally expected, but i saw no real propensity to offer excuses.

at speed ends with the author's departure from sky to a team he feels appreciates his talents more fully, and a team whose programme equates better with cavendish's own racing aspirations: omega-pharma quick-step. surprisingly, considering the detail with which cavendish elaborates his negotiations and disagreements with both his original agent, chris evans-pollard and with htc boss, bob stapleton, his departure from team sky is almost glossed over. perhaps for once, sense prevailed on both sides and all was as simple as it appears, but...

i can therefore do little else but apologise to both andrew goodfellow at ebury press and to mark cavendish for doubting what an excellent book this turned out to be. if nothing else, it has altered my perspective on the man himself; not only can he write remarkably well, he displays an intelligence that contradicts the reputation of his metier. he is also very self-effacing with apparently little desire to deny his less attractive traits while being particularly praiseworthy towards those he feels carry out their own duties (whatever those might be) to the best of their abilities. it's probably too late to recommend this as the very item to place in a cyclist's stocking for christmas, but it's not too late to consider the possibility of giving a new year's present.

very, very good indeed, but when the paperback is published, please consider dispensing with the moody cover photo.

sunday 22 december 2013

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................