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.
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.
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.