Nine years may have passed since cycling great Mark Cavendish lined up for the Giro d’Italia but that hasn’t stopped the 36-year-old exuding a quiet sense of confidence ahead of Friday’s (6 May) start in Budapest.
“I'm relaxed. I've got a good team and I've got good form,” the Manxman said in a press conference on Wednesday (4 May).
Cavendish returns to head up a QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl team built to support him in the infamous bunch sprints typical of the race where historically he has excelled.
In his five career Giro appearances the sprint specialist has won 15 stages, won the points classification (cyclamen jersey) in 2013, and donned the General Classification leader's maglia rosa for a total of four days.
“It's always a race that I like to do in the past,” continued a coy Cavendish. “Obviously, the dynamic might have changed in nine years so it might not be the race I remember. I don't know. We'll see.”
It’s hard to deny that momentum belongs with Cavendish heading into the tour.
The Olympic track silver medallist from Rio 2016 has scored three victories so far this year, winning Milano-Torino and stages at the Tour of Oman and the UAE Tour.
Feats even more impressive considering in November he suffered a punctured lung.
“Of course it’s hard,” Cavendish replied when asked how the recovery has been. “But I work hard.”
The emphasis Cavendish places on work is not accidental.
In recent years his efforts and drive are what has largely kept the Isle of Man native in the game even when his career looked like it was petering out.
When they captured headlines for their eye-watering Olympic exploits in the world’s greatest velodromes, the Manxman parried with his own triumphs.
Victory in Milan-San Remo in 2009, a world championship win in 2011 but perhaps the most remarkable was the 30 Tour de France stages he captured between 2008 and 2016. It was dominance like the kind not seen in a generation.
But it was after the heights of 2016 that Cavendish found his career beginning to derail.
After concluding another astonishing year where, in addition to picking up an Olympic silver in the omnium, he became world champion with Wiggins in the madison and claimed the yellow jersey for the first time in Tour de France, the cyclist began to experience fatigue like never before. It led to an eventual diagnosis: Epstein-Barr virus, which is one of the causes of glandular fever.
Cavendish often refers to it as ‘a coward illness’ for the way it strikes when someone is feeling stressed and run down and after pushing himself to the limit he happened to be both.
Mark Cavendish on depression
Things then worsened for the rider when he was prematurely given the all-clear to train. Though the doctors told him he was fine, he was feeling anything but, and yet couldn’t understand why.
The balance between strength and weight is often seen as critical to success on the road in cycling. When you can’t obtain one, you opt for the other. When Cavendish could no longer find his strength, he chose to stop eating to make himself lighter.
The decision took an immense psychological toll on the rider who was subsequently diagnosed with depression.
“I said ‘I need to find out what’s wrong with me’’” Cavendish told Eurosport’s Breakdown podcast reflecting on the particularly dark period of his life. “I thought I’d go and get told I had Epstein-Barr virus, which I did, but at the same time they told me I had clinical depression.”
Just as Cavendish was struggling with recovering his own mental health his life on the road similarly took a turn. In 2018 – around the time of mental health diagnosis – Cavendish finished outside the time limit on the Tour de France meaning he missed the cut and crashed out.
Then in 2019, for the first time in his professional career, he failed to win a race. A year later, when, once again, he was unable to turn up any wins his new team Bahrain-McLaren opted not to renew his contract.
It looked like the end of the line for one of the sport’s greatest.
Cavendish: The difference between pressure and expectation
Speaking in more detail about how he overcame depression Cavendish explained that focusing on what he could control, and what he could not, was a large part of the equation.
Though he is a man who openly admits to being fuelled by those that would write him off, the three-time Olympian revealed that the expectations of others can be overwhelming not least because he has no say in determining them.
“The running story of my life is having to prove myself. Always has been, always will be,” said Cavendish to Eurosport. “The more you do the more you’re expected to do.”
“For instance, take Simone Biles at the Olympics last year. It’s easy commentating to say ‘Yes but it’s her job to have pressure’… but there’s a difference between having pressure and expectation.
“Of course, you’ve got pressure. You have to perform. It’s your job to perform. It’s everything you work for - to perform. Expectation comes from an outside entity. You know what you’ve done and what you can achieve, and what you’re capable of - maybe luck will work either way and you don’t achieve what you know you can - when there’s an expectation to do it it’s out of your control. And that’s where problems come from.
“Unfortunately, the better you perform the more that expectation comes from the outside.”
It may just align then, that when expectation surrounding Cavendish was at its very lowest, he turned out his very best.
Last year, in the unlikeliest of circumstances Cavendish found himself thrust onto the Tour de France as a replacement; a race the rider has openly said he’s based his whole career around.
Back in the saddle for his favourite cycling competition, Cavendish stunned the racing world winning four stages to draw him level with the 34 set by the legendary Belgian Eddy Merckx.
Though just missing the chance to surpass Merckx after coming third in the sprint finish under the iconic Champs-Elysees, Cavendish’s stunning comeback indisputably thrust him into the legendary tier of top cyclists that have ever lived.
Giro d’Italia 2022: How to watch Mark Cavendish in action
Though Cavendish said in his press conference that audiences should not expect a repeat from 2013 or to see him in the iconic pink jersey too early on, his competitors should still be wary.
The Manxman did confirm that he felt “pretty similar” to this time last year before his resounding triumphs in France.
The 105th Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) will get underway in Budapest, Hungary on Friday 6 May at 12:00 CET.
Coverage of the year’s first Grant Tour will be available across platforms such as discovery+, Eurosport and GCN+.
For an in depth guide including the most testing stages and who else to watch out for click here.