In praise of Mark Cavendish and the power of sport to inspire

By Dafydd Rees

Sport is all about the power of stories. Over the past few weeks, we have all ridden the rollercoaster of the European Football Championships and thrilled at the progress of teenager Emma Raducana at Wimbledon.

But this is a column in praise of Mark Cavendish. We all need a good story in these difficult times, and few comeback stories are as remarkable or as endearing as this one. 

Who is he, I hear you say? This 36 year old sprint cyclist from the Isle of Man is on the cusp of true sporting greatness. In the past fortnight he has equalled the all-time record of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France, which puts him on a par with the legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx who dominated the sport in the 1970’s and was known in his day as the Cannibal for his all-consuming desire to win.

Over the course of the next few days Mark has a shot at sporting immortality. On Friday, on Stage 19 and in the final day’s race on Sunday, the Champs-Elysee presents the ideal backdrop for Mark Cavendish to go one better than Eddy Merckx. Should he triumph in Paris it would be Mark Cavendish’s fifth victory at this grand ceremonial showcase.  

What is not in doubt is that this British sportsman is the greatest sprint cyclist who has ever lived. He has also carved his name in the history of the toughest bike race in the world.    

This is a tale of true sporting redemption. A few weeks ago, Mark was not even expected to start the race. At 36 years old, he was washed up and counted out. 

His first Tour de France was more than a decade ago. He is competing in this year’s race  with a new generation of riders who first watched him while they were at primary school. His short, stubby legs mark him out as very different rider from the sleek physiques of his fellow competitors.

Over the years Mark has had a troubled, prickly relationship with the media, his own health and with the sporting hierarchy.

As anyone who has spent any time with sportspeople can attest, as a collective they can prove to be a difficult and driven bunch. An all-consuming obsession is an essential for success. Sprint cycling demands an inherent selfishness.

And yet. Mark Cavendish’s emotional engagement with the many challenges he has overcome, somehow feels right in the era of COVID-19. He is open with the media about the difficulties he has faced in the past and his own personality weaknesses and failures. There is an empathy that has been missing in the past for those around him too.    

As he drags his aching body over the Alps and Pyrenees his dogged determination is an inspiration. His physique is unsuited to such trials but the race demands each rider must  contest all 21 stages in order to stay in the race.  

Cycling is as much about conquering your own demons as overcoming the competition. As we all endure the never-ending trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Cavendish’s belief in himself has a relevance and an inspiration that resonates far beyond sport.