Mark Cavendish training - fast descending with the Manx Missile. In which 33Fuel races Mark Cavendish down a mountain...
I’m sat alone on my bike on the edge of a Manx mountain facing down the barrel of a desolate strip of tarmac as the Irish sea twinkles on the horizon. With the breeze stirring the long grass the tranquility is absolute.
The mountain in question is Snaefell, the highest peak on the Isle of Man and the desolate strip of tarmac is the A18, a remarkable road.
The highest on the island it has no speed limit and once a year things get even faster when it’s closed to traffic to become part of the Isle of Man TT course for motorcycle racers with plums the size of melons – 252 have died racing here since 1907.
Today the hazards will be entirely pedal powered as the road’s been closed exclusively for two cyclists. One is yours truly, the other is Mark Cavendish. You may have heard of him.
A thoroughly decent chap with a wry grin and a love of speed, he’s won an incredible 29 Tour de France stages putting him in all-time second place behind the legendary Eddy Merckx.
He’s also bagged 15 Giro d’Italia stage wins, enough Grand Tour jerseys to open a clothes shop, and a world title.
Then there’s the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award from 2011 to go with the MBE the Queen gave him. In short, he’s The Real Deal, a true sporting great, and the owner of one of world cycling's fastest sprints.
- Two men hanging out in tight Lycra having their picture taken, it's the most normal thing in the world. Mark Cavendish gives 33Fuel co-founder Warren descending tips on the summit of Snaefell
He’s also just disappeared down the mountain ahead of me to see how fast he can hack out the five downhill miles to the finish line below. In ten minutes, it’s my go. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
This most remarkable of days begun innocently enough.
Grey cloud blanketed the Isle of Man and a dank mist clung around Snaefell’s summit as I waited for Cavendish.
When he arrived, it was at speed – clearly his default setting – and by sportscar.
Howling into view making the most of the A18’s lack of speed limit, he hauled up in the car park and, as the dust settled, hopped out to unload his bike. As he prepped, we talked – after all, it’s not every day you get to pick the brains of someone this good at what they do.
On how to lift your game as an amateur cyclist, his answer was unequivocal:
“You need a power meter, it’s the best way of stepping up to the next level. It’s so easy on a bike to go out too hard. The power meter teaches you where your limits are. Then you can work on raising them.”
As for the question of training and recovery, he was equally forthright:
“There’s a misconception that training makes you better but it isn’t. It’s the recovery from the training when your body’s rebuilding that makes you better.”
And when it came to dealing with the brutal demands of pro cycling where riders will race almost 100 days in a season, his answers were illuminating:
“Our season runs from January to October and by the end of August last year I’d raced more than most riders would all year. In that time I peaked three times. Once for Milan-San Remo, once for the Giro d’Italia, and once for the Tour de France.
“But, like most riders I can use racing for training. Some races you just don’t go as deep. You can work through it like training instead.
“As a sprinter I’m really lucky in this respect because I’m looked after by my teammates so at times when I want to train in a race I may even still have the chance to win”.
There’s a certain amount of modesty here because for most mortals training and riding a Grand Tour do not go together, but it makes the point that in the rarified atmosphere or pro cycling, racing does not always have to mean exactly that.
Instead it’s all about choosing which ones you race, and which you ride.
Even so, your body’s going to take a pasting, whether by simply running your immune system into oblivion…
“If you don’t look after yourself doing this you’ll be ill a lot. The guys who are always ill are the ones burning the candle at both ends – if you’re doing other stuff between races you’re not living professionally and that’s when problems start.”
… Or by hurling yourself down the road
“You learn to deal with it. It’s not nice, but you just get up. In the Giro d’Italia I crashed on the second day and took all the skin off my back. I had to cycle through the rest of the race with that – there can’t be another sport where you can injure yourself like that and by the time you’ve finished the event you’ve had time to heal.”
Hoping I’d be flying back to the mainland with my own skin still attached after this little venture, thoughts turned our 'race' ahead.
Just how fast did he think he could get down to our designated finish line outside the seaside town of Ramsey?
“Here it’s difficult because in the bits where you can go fast without pedalling you’ve got the corners to deal with, and also it depends on the type of bike. If I had a time trial aero bike with tri bars, the right gearing and the right wheels I’d easily hit 100kmh, but on this bike (he’d brought his regular road training steed – he has one permanently stashed at each of his three houses) and with the headwind today it’ll be less than that”.
Given the right conditions (and legs) however, straight road race bikes are still capable of serious speed.
“During a race in Switzerland I hit 121kmh. Fabian Cancellara got 130kmh in the same spot, but then he’s 10kgs heavier than me.”
So how do you get downhill as fast as possible on a racing bike?
This is something Cavendish has to be very good in his day job. As a sprinter he’s not got the all-day gas in the tank of regular peloton frontrunners, or the climbing pace of the mountain goats - so descending is where he has to claw back every second he can.
- Giving the TT motorcycle racers a serious run for their money, Cavendish is a downhill bullet
“Most Tour riders actually aren’t very good at descending”
“The guys at the front don’t have to descend so hard, but for the guys on the back it’s a chance to regain lost time.
“Anyone can say ‘fuck it’ and go down as fast as possible, but doing that there’s a big chance you’ll crash badly.
"Descending fast is a technical skill, there’s a technique to it"
“Basically, the bike goes into the corner and your body stays up.
"Keep your weight over the centre of the bike.
"As you lean in, push your outside leg down through the pedal to keep the tyres gripping and don’t start pedaling too early out of the corner or you’ll hit your cranks on the floor”.
After a sprint masterclass to give me a chance of putting up some sort of a fight when the race rolled around, we headed for the start line where after stuffing it into the big ring, Cavendish promptly did a high speed vanishing act leaving me sat alone with my nerves where we began this tale.
Three, two, one… Go.
Up onto the pedals, stomping everything to the back wheel I leap from the line salmon like (in my mind at least, the reality was probably more 'wet lettuce') and pull for the horizon. I feel light, powerful and strong. Maybe this won’t be so bad.
Thirty seconds later and the lactic’s flooding my legs.
Bugger. This is going to hurt like hell, which is precisely what it does, particularly as this ‘downhill’ course is very gentle for the first couple of miles meaning lots of leg work.
Even as the descent steepens, it’s still not enough to tip me into aero coasting mode. Only pride keeps my legs turning.
Having raced motorcycles years ago, I had hoped to perhaps claw back a few seconds through the corners but by the time I get to the faster ones it’s all I can do to hang onto the bars.
A look at the photos of Cavendish in full flow through here later proves that even fresh I wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway.
With 9m 02s showing on the clock I sail past the chequered flag being energetically waved by Cavendish’s mum who’s come to join the party.
Rolling to a halt I slump over the bars, chest heaving and seeing stars before the moment passes and I’m able to see just how badly I’ve been stuffed.
“Seven minutes thirty two,” he grins as I haul myself upright. Only a minute and a half faster than me. It almost sounds okay, until you check the stats - his average speed was 40mph, mine just 33mph. He even managed to top out at 63mph, while I crawled to just 55.
He doesn’t even look tired as he hops back into his car and drives off. Very fast, unsurprisingly.
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