The men behind Mark Cavendish’s 2016 season: Brian Smith, Heiko Salzwedel, Rolf Aldag and Bernhard Eisel
As Mark Cavendish leaves the Tour de France to pursue an Olympic medal, we catch up with four of the men who know the Manxman best
After four stage wins, six days in green, and a day in yellow, Mark Cavendish has bid farewell to the 2016 Tour de France.
A former world road race champion, Monument Classic victor, points jersey winner in all three Grand Tours, and possessor of 30 Tour de France stage victories, Cavendish is off to pursue the glaring omission from his dazzling palmares: an Olympic medal.
But even after Rio, where he will return to his track roots to represent Great Britain in the omnium and perhaps also in the team pursuit, Cavendish will face another significant opportunity at the world road race championships in Qatar.
And those who know Cavendish best are backing him to collect more of cycling’s glittering prizes. RoadCyclingUK caught up with Brian Smith, the former general manager of Team Dimension Data; Heiko Salzwedel, British Cycling’s men’s endurance coach; Rolf Aldag, Cavendish’s long-time mentor; and Bernhard Eisel, the Manxman’s minder in the peloton, to dissect what might be his most successful season yet.
A new dimension
Brian Smith left Team Dimension Data in April but signed Cavendish ahead of the 2016 season when received wisdom had it that the sprinter was past his best.
“You don’t lose that class,” Smith says. “Cav was the best sprinter in the world and I truly believed he could always be the best sprinter in the world. Obviously, Kittel has caught up with him. Cav had to change something, and I think the something that changed was his mentality.”
Smith says he helped Cavendish rediscover his enjoyment of cycling; a crucial element for a rider under such constant pressure to win at his two previous teams, Sky and Etixx-QuickStep. At Dimension Data, Smith implemented a different philosophy, anchored in the freedom to race.
“At the start of the year, I said, ‘I don’t care if you lose to Kittel in Dubai, as long as you win in July [at the Tour].’ You’ve got to be prepared to lose to win.
“I say to guys: ‘I want to see you race. I want to see you try to win. Take a step back: look around; what can you do to win this race?’
Brian Smith: “At the start of the year, I said, ‘I don’t care if you lose to Kittel in Dubai, as long as you win in July’”
“If you look at how MTN-Qhubeka and Dimension Data race, they attack and try to win stages. That’s what people like. How many people don’t like the way [Peter] Sagan races? How many second places does he get, but he continues to race to win.”
Despite leaving the team earlier this year, Smith remains on good terms with Dimension Data, and is as pleased as anyone by Cavendish’s rediscovery of his very best form at the Tour; a rejuvenation that netted him four stage wins before leaving the race on the second rest day. Smith is backing Cavendish for Olympic glory, too.
“Cav understands that. He’ll ride other events and not be totally committed. He’ll do his job. But the Olympics is huge for Cavendish; that kind of monkey on his back. He was the only rider not to come back from Beijing without a medal. It’s personal. How many teams allow riders to have personal goals? But Dimension Data is a team that listens.”
Smith might be excused such a favourable opinion of a team he helped propel to the highest level, but his view is borne out by a quite different source: Heiko Salzwedel, British Cycling’s men’s endurance coach.
Salzwedel has a coaching palmares to compare to Cavendish’s achievements as a rider. Founder of the road and mountain bike programmes at the Australian Institute of Sport, and one of the principle architects of Team GB’s success at the Beijing Games in 2008, he rejoined the set-up in Manchester in October 2014, after driving the Danish and Russian team pursuit squads to success.
“Cav contacted me and asked about the possibility to ride the Olympics,” he says. “We had a good talk and of course I was pretty excited about the possibility and did everything to make sure he had the right pathway and opportunities to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
Heiko Salzwedel: “It’s not a surprise to me that a rider like Mark can display such commitment in races, because he shows such commitment in training”
Salzwedel engineered the nuts and bolts of Olympic qualification, ensuring Cavendish had sufficient track time and competitive opportunities, beginning with a round of the UCI-accredited Revolution Series in Derby last August.
Finding “the right pathway” for a rider also competing at the sharp end of the WorldTour meant liaising closely with Cavendish’s road team. When I ask if he worked closely with Team Dimension Data, Salzwedel bears out Smith’s assertion, answering in a single word: “Definitely.”
“We have been in touch with Dimension Data and they have supported everything that helps Mark. They are behind him.”
Salzwedel believes Cavendish will have a vulcanising effect on the entire team when they arrive in Rio. He describes Cavendish as “an incredible fighter”, able to “really hurt himself”, and recalls a training session shortly before the Tour of California, where the rider pushed himself to the limit.
“It’s not a surprise to me that a rider like Mark can display such commitment in races, because he shows such commitment in training.”
One need only consider his world title winning ride with Wiggins in March for evidence of Cavendish’s ability to rise to the occasion and push himself beyond the normal limits of performance when the chips are down.
And yet London was not the catalyst for his selection for the omnium, where Cavendish finished sixth. Instead, it was a combination of Jon Dibben’s misfortune and the Manxman’s performance with Wiggins that convinced Salzwedel.
“The worlds was a little bit lower than our expectation, but we knew that he could pull out more and be better in the omnium. Dibben had a bad crash, broke his arm, and lost a bit of momentum, and that was the opportunity for Mark to really show his value. He took the chance.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to selection, he has to prove to me that he can make a difference and that he can pull out Olympic gold in the omnium.”
And can he?
Salzwedel is unequivocal. “Yes, especially after his brilliant Tour de France.”
The team pursuit, however, might be a different matter. The fifth man in an Olympic endurance squad can be required to play a dual role: sharing team pursuit duties as well as competing in the omnium. Cavendish’s road commitments, however, have reduced the likelihood of his being called upon for the team event.
“With every day less on the track, we have less time to prepare the team,” Salzwedel says. “Without Mark, it’s a loss from that point of view, but since we have the other four riders and if we have no problems, then it’s possible I will not use Mark in the team pursuit.
“If I had enough time to prepare him…then the challenge would be less and I would be more likely to use Mark for the team pursuit, possibly for the first round.”
With the four-man pursuit squad headed by Wiggins, and packed with talent, both burgeoning and proven, Salzwedel has little to worry about. The omnium looks likely to be Cavendish’s sole responsibility as well as his principle aim. The coach has no doubts that his man will deliver.
“He’s a hard worker in training and certainly lifted the spirit of the team and the commitment of the team,” Salzwedel says of the Cavendish work ethic. “He lifts the whole Games.”
The Aldag connection
Few people in professional cycling know Cavendish as well as Rolf Aldag. The German, now performance manger at Team Dimension Data, worked closely with Cavendish both at HTC-Highroad and Etixx-QuickStep.
Before the Manxman turned a pedal for Sky, Aldag predicted that the team would not be able to divide its resources equally between the sprinter and its GC riders, Wiggins and Chris Froome, and described the move as a gamble. He knows his man.
Aldag concedes that working with Cavendish is “not always easy”, and jokes about a love-hate relationship, but speaks without a trace of doubt about when I ask about the Manxman’s continued motivation and the scale of his ambition.
“He came last year and explained all his goals and the only thing we can do is to support him. Will he achieve everything? Well, who knows, but as long as he tries. He’s proved so many people wrong, who said he didn’t have it anymore.
“We can create a framework, but within that, he has to move and get the best out of it. Some of it is out of our hands, like British Cycling…but if we can help to get him in the best shape, we will do it.”
Rolf Aldag: “It’s much nicer to work with people who you don’t have to slow down, but who constantly want to kick arse”
To leave the Tour then, foregoing the Champs Élysées and the chance of a fifth stage victory, must take some character, but determination, Aldag says, is not something that Cavendish lacks.
“He could have just said the Tour is what I live for, but he’s still committed to making history on the bike. This is something we have to realise: he’s not a spoiled kid with no ambition, and that’s why we have to support him.
“It’s much nicer to work with people who you don’t have to slow down, but who constantly want to kick arse.”
Cavendish has done his fair share of arse kicking already this season and doubtless plans to do some more in Rio.
After Rio will come Qatar and the world road race championships. Cavendish has already delivered on the Gulf state’s desert roads, winning countless stages and the overall Tour of Qatar title on two occasions, most recently in February.
The worlds course will not be wildly dissimilar to any previously witnessed in Qatar, and the desert race’s traditional ‘x’ factor – ferocious crosswinds – are less likely in October than February, according to four-time winner Tom Boonen, at least. Conditions more likely to deliver a bunch sprint will clearly play to Cavendish’s strengths.
“Don’t count him out for the World Championships,” Smith warns. “It’s a gradual build up through the year. He’s in the right environment with the right people around him; people who believe in him.”
The married couple
One who perhaps believes in him the most is Bernhard Eisel. The Austrian compares his relationship with Cavendish to marriage. The pair have shared thousands of hours together on the road, in team buses, and hotel rooms.
When the road is flat, Eisel is one of the key members of Cavendish’s lead out train, and when it rises, they are partners in suffering in the grupetto, both taking massive risks on descents to make the time cut, which Eisel calculates with clinical accuracy.
Bernhard Eisel: “He always honours everything you do for him. He’s definitely one of the last real professionals”
“The good thing and the bad thing is that I know him so well,” Eisel laughs. “We always say it’s like being married for a long time. Little things just annoy you and you freak out. He’s a perfectionist and I’m pretty similar, but that’s why we work so well together.
“But it’s always fun to work with him and he always honours everything you do for him; everyone, not just me especially. He also gives back. He’s definitely one of the last real professionals.”
Annus mirabilis – part deux?
Cavendish finds himself again eyeing the biggest prizes in cycling through a potent combination of talent, determination and proven working relationships.
He has bounced back from a failed bid to win the Olympic road race in London; a divorce, however amicable, with Team Sky, British Cycling’s de facto presence in the WorldTour, and a losing streak to Marcel Kittel.
Now he has Kittel in his pocket and a place in the Great Britain track squad for the Olympic Games in Rio. A fifth rainbow jersey, to place alongside his three Madison titles and the 2011 world road race championship, is also a distinct possibility.
Difficult, demanding, and still devastating, Cavendish is a self-confessed perfectionist and so sets his goals accordingly. His Tour campaign was wildly successful and he will go to Rio with a huge sense of momentum. Should he triumph in the omnium and fill the last remaining gap on his CV, then he will travel to Qatar with still greater purpose.
Five years after an annus mirabilis that brought a rainbow jersey on the road, five Tour de France stage wins and a green jersey, Cavendish stands on the brink of an even more auspicious season. His place in history is assured, but he burns for still greater reward. Cavendish the insatiable might just get all he wants this year.
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