Book Review: At Speed by Mark Cavendish

Monday, 3 February 2014

Mark Cavendish At Speed

A prolific winner, Mark Cavendish is also a publishing phenomenon with two autobiographies out by the age of 28. After “Boy Racer”, this is the second instalment that tells the tale of his time with the Highroad team, his World Championship win in Copenhagen, the year with Team Sky and one season with OPQS.

The title “At Speed” doesn’t just refer to Mark Cavendish’s finishing speed, you can fly though with the pages with tailwind as it’s an easy read. Perhaps at times the voice just isn’t that of “Cav”, at one point he jokes the hardest part of TV commentary was to stop swearing but the book is expletive-free.

You still get the sense of Cavendish talking. It’s very much his view and if you might remember André Greipel winning a stage in the Tour de France, for Cavendish it becomes a day he lost as he recounts the mistakes made on the run-in. It’s easy to read this as “coulda, woulda, shoulda” but the explanation is often factual, convincing. This confident tone changes and come the 2013 Tour de France you sense the self-doubt rising despite a serious mechanical issue not being picked up with his bike until the final week (I won’t spoil what it was). But this time that’s not the only problem and he’s left wondering what he can do about Marcel Kittel. Having knocked rivals like Greipel, Tyler Farrar, J-J Rojas and even new team mate Alessandro Petacchi over the pages, he’s only got good things to say about Kittel.

Mark Cavendish Marcel Kittels Tours

A lot of the book goes from one race to the next. You get led through the final moments of a sprint as if you’re hunched over a Specialized Venge, although in slow motion as the textual explanation guides you to the line. There are longer lasting backstories like the saga to find a sponsor for the Highroad team and Cavendish’s frustration at being locked into a low-budget contract despite being a star name, although this is presented without numbers. As a team leader he’s a bridge between riders and management and consequently his interactions with the likes of Brian Holm are crucial. If anything Cavendish could have the makings of a great team manager, synthesising the planning and analysis of mentor Rod Ellingworth with his own compulsive side – he’s a stickler for tidiness – to make a contemporary version of Cyrille Guimard.

One example he won’t mimic is Sean Yates from his time at Sky. We get a different view on the 2012 Tour de France, it’s known Cavendish wasn’t happy but he explains the whole team was nervous and stressed; everyone was winning but the enjoyment was often muted. The perceived lack of support is expressed by proxy with rising rage over the use of coffee machine on the Sky bus. A detail but Cav’s sprinting is all about the small things, he plays memory games and puzzles to “train the brain” and commits the final kilometres of a sprint to memory.

We’d get back to the bus after mountain stages, hear maybe from the directeurs or on the TV that Andy Schleck had attacked Alberto Contador, that Armstrong was struggling or that Cadel Evans had blown on the Col de la Madelaine, and we’d react as you do when your mum tells you that a second cousin had just graduaed from university, or Maureen from down the road is moving house. It was news, but only of very vague interest to us.

There’s plenty on life at the back of the race. Cavendish tells how he and others in the Tour de France are totally detached from events in the race during mountain stages. And if fans have enjoyed watching riders like Johnny Hoogerland or Juan-Antonio Flecha light up a race, Cav explains how their antics make them unpopular in the bunch.

There’s not much about life outside the sport. A segment of readership want gossipy tales or titbits on the music he listens to or the TV shows he watches and there’s little; he does mention how he met wife Peta and fatherhood is a theme throughout the book. But there’s not much more on life away from racing, for example training isn’t explained beyond a few accounts of motorpacing, the same with diet. WADA’s Whereabouts is explained – the hidden bugbear of all elite athletes.

Summary
If the first book was “Boy Racer” this is “Man Racer” with a more thoughtful and reflective rider giving his view on sprinting but also sponsorship and fatherhood. It doesn’t replace the first book, one does not replace the other. The book gives a good insight Mark Cavendish’s view of the peloton from both the front and the back. Some parts are made for wider audience but there’s plenty for the cyclist wanting to learn about sprinting or what goes on at the back of the bunch during a mountain stage – buy it if you’re a Cavendish fan or if you want this extra detail.

A speed read, the prose flows fast. The frustration is that this book amounts to merely a few chapters in the life or the career of Mark Cavendish. He’s already got two books out but what if the most interesting story was to yet to come? 2014 looks to be a fascinating year as he links up with former leadout man Mark Renshaw. Can he take the yellow jersey with a home win in the Tour this summer? Looking beyond, the story of how he works to keep his edge as a new generation of sprinters comes chasing is worthy of a third tome.

Note: this copy was sent free for review. It is published by Ebury.

A list of previous book reviews is available here.

Denny February 3, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for the review. I’m a big reader of cycling-related books (Tim Lewis’ ‘Land of Second Chances’ being my latest favourite), but tend to steer clear of autobiographies from current riders. My impression is that they are often watered-down: you don’t hear their real views because they still need to please currents sponsors, team mates, race organisers, fellow pros, etc. However, your review suggests that Cavendish is actually quite frank. Is this your view? Or did you get a sense he was holding things back?

The Inner Ring February 3, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Cavendish is often a straight-talker but in the book he explains how sometimes he’s had to bite his tongue. So you do get some of his real thoughts here although criticism of some riders, like Farrar or (new team mate) Uran doesn’t run across pages. The same of his time at Sky, he’s unhappy but at the same time not unloading on them. So yes, he’s frank but at the same time this isn’t a list of criticism.

Mike February 3, 2014 at 2:31 pm

No personal offence to Mark or Wayne Rooney, or any of the other very successful under thirty year old (at time of publishing) sports heroes but really an “auto biography” when you haven’t even lived a third of your life seems a tad unnecessary. Just my 5 cents worth….and yes if I were to write one it would be very thin and no one would want to read it!

Zac February 3, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I agree with you, they should at least wait until they retire to write the auto-biography, doesn’t make sense for me to read 2 or 3 different books about a current rider/player because they update their story

The Inner Ring February 3, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I tend to agree although the flipside is that if Cavendish sat down to write this in 20 years he’d leave out some anecdotes and forget other details. So this is primary material that’s fresh in his mind, there are moments where it’s like a diary with comment from one day to the next. I was thinking it would be good to buy an e-book with the promise that any future editions are automatically uploaded.

Mike February 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Fair point on the details part and I like the “updating eBook idea” but I am not so sure that the publishers who sign 5 book auto biography deals would.

Anonymous February 3, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Argh … reading this excellent review has only made me frustrated that I’ve got to wait until July to know whether Cavendish can find the missing watts/tactics to overhaul Kittel. Hopefully there’ll be an early rematch in Dubai, but will that be between Cancer Classic Kittel and 2009 Cav, or TDU Kittel and a Cav still trying to digest his Xmas pud? It’s conceivable Cav’s fatigue, mechanical, and team issues played a part in his 2013 TDF defeats, but he claims to have hit his 1500 watt maximum output anyway – maybe that was 1501 watts, rather than 1599 though, or with less of a kick or for a shorter period. July will be fascinating, so long as the Orica bus has a decent banksman this year.

It’s a shame MSR (and GW, according to Cav) are now out of the purer sprinters’ reach, as there’s little incentive for them to have an early season peak. Even if Cavendish really thinks he’ll have Kittel’s number this year, it might not be prudent to show his hand yet. I guess it’s heretical to traditionalists, but in some ways, I’d prefer seeing year-long competitions between rider types (where every race really counts), than watching numerous races where riders are trying to peak for some time in the future. OTOH, it’s nice to see different faces on the podium and there are obvious downsides to an F1-style season.

RooBay February 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Thank Christ that MSR is no longer a sprinters race. The Zabel years were a yawn.

Ankush February 3, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Gotta read it as it’s Cav.

Darryl February 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm

A nicely written, interesting book. I love the metaphors he comes up with! Sometimes it is a little too defensive, but that can be understood given the attacks by the press – and the peloton – he’s had to endure. One thing I came away with was a sense of his intelligence. Thanks for the review.

The Inner Ring February 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Intelligence and sensitivity too, he’s often very aware of criticism from even the most remote corners of the internet or front page headlines. But this often seems to spur him on.

Dave February 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Just finishing the book: The Wolf of Wall St.
So this seems like my new read!

Qwerty February 3, 2014 at 5:37 pm

So should I buy it, yes or no?

The Inner Ring February 3, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Impossible to answer although in stating this I suppose I’m implying it’s not a must-read. If you were only going to buy one cycling book ever then most would pick something else. It’s not sweeping in history, not even a whole career. But if you want to find out more about how Cavendish won some sprints in the past or to read about how the grupetto works, then try it. If you have a cycling library, it’s a good addition. It’s also easy to read, easy to dip in and out during a couple of long flights etc.

Anyone interested in the subject should also look at Project Rainbow by William Fotheringham as it covers the work behind Cavendish’s win in the 2011 Worlds. At Speed opens with this but Project Rainbow goes into even more technical detail, more for the cycling geeks and for the historians.

Toe Strap February 4, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Officially, Project Rainbow is by Rod Ellingworth. Did Fotheringham ghost write?
On the subject of which, how much credit is given to Cav’s ghost? (Daniel Friebe I think) . Seems to be an open secret that all these “auto” biogs are ghosted, but the poor guys get little credit – tho presumably do get a reasonable cheque.

The Inner Ring February 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Correct, I forgot that because yes, William Fotheringham was the “ghost”. It’s a strange game, everyone knows who helps with the writing – the book usually includes a “thanks for helping turn the words into reality” reference. Presumably writing for a star ensures a good number of sales and they get a good cut. David Walsh is doing Chris Froome’s book, due out this summer.

jean-pierre February 3, 2014 at 6:43 pm

boy racer was just about the worst book i read in 2013 so i have little interest in this one.

2 autobiographies by 28…while the sprint world is changing…cav is really milking this while he can.

richard February 3, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Just half way through it. First to borrow it from the library. Great read. The top spin put on by the author takes it a bit too high at times. But the honesty of the man shines through. He really is a deeply insecure rider, for all his showmanship and arrogance. Which is his appeal.

Armitage Shanks February 3, 2014 at 8:30 pm

There IS swearing in the book. I know from bitter experience as I downloaded the audiobook and when I went to check it had downloaded correctly the first thing that blared out from my laptop was “Fuck you then” with my five-year-old daughter in the room. Thanks for that, Cav.

The Inner Ring February 3, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for the family-friendly warning. I think there might be one or two examples – there’s one in the first chapter as he tells Millar he’ll win the worlds. But it’s rare, no?

Armitage Shanks February 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm

I’ve actually found the audio version completely un-listenable due to the v/o artist sounding nothing like Cav. I’ll have to download the book.

hoh February 3, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Thanks for the great review. Probably will get an audio vision to go through whilst doing my core training exercises & stretches. Also thanks to Armitage Shanks for heads ups on the swearing. Wouldn’t want my 16 month old to pick that up.

On a side note, we probably got an interesting sponsor (a Chinese Gran Fondo) this month on the website. Huang Shan is a beautiful place, and not quite as polluted as the rest of China. The area would make much better races than the now much hated Tour of Beijing. Have to say that I would not notice the event if not for the sponsor banner on your website. Hopefully, I will be able to attend if they are to hold the event again next year.

The Inner Ring February 4, 2014 at 6:51 pm

Thanks for the note on the new sponsor, I’ll give them a proper post to say “thanks” soon but it’s interesting to get your view.

J Dunn February 4, 2014 at 10:54 pm

He needed a lot more to talk about before publishing volume 2. This was interesting but slight; are all modern celebs/athletes compelled to spin out their lives to keep publishers happy? Sometimes the readers notice.

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