Unstoppable force: Mark Cavendish’s collaboration with Richard Mille
The Olympic medal-winning cyclist is back on top form and forging new friendships
Mark Cavendish has just got back to work. I’m meeting him at the Circuit Paul Ricard racetrack in Le Castellet, near Marseilles, for the launch of a new Richard Mille timepiece: the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost, which, surprisingly, has been designed specifically for cycling.
Prost, now 62, is passionate about the sport and is a notable figure on the global circuits of the Gran Fondo, having taken up biking following his retirement from Formula One in 1993. His long-time friend Richard Mille has conceived a futuristic-looking watch that comprises five odometer rollers to track the miles or kilometres travelled not just in a day, but throughout an entire cycling season.
For Prost, this amounts to somewhere around 8,000km, but for Cavendish a typical season is equivalent to 15,000km, roughly the distance between his home village of Laxey on the Isle of Man and Fiji in the South Pacific. Over the summer, however, Cavendish was forced to take a six-week break from cycling after fracturing his shoulder in a spectacular collision with Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, 200m from the finish line on Stage Four of the Tour de France. The fall resulted in his withdrawal from the race – and Sagan’s expulsion. Now fully recuperated, Cavendish is back in the saddle once more, having taken part in September’s Tour of Britain.
Today, he’s in high spirits as he watches Renault’s RS01 racecar – on loan from the Winfield Racing School that launched Prost’s career – power around the track. Mille, a car and sports fanatic, doesn’t do things by halves. His super lightweight and ultra-luxurious timepieces are made of fascinating nanomaterials, including a plethora of revolutionary carbon composites. He has also orchestrated high-profile watch collaborations with the likes of Rafael Nadal, Yohan Blake and Felipe Massa, and his own garage houses what’s widely considered to be one of the rarest collections of classic and F1 cars.
The two men hit it off instantly, not least because Cavendish himself is a self-confessed “watch nut”. “I met Richard in person for the first time last year,” says the British cyclist. “I was at Stage Four or Five of the  Tour de France, and I got a call. Richard said, 'I’ve got something for you,' and soon after he gave me this!’” He proudly shows off his Richard Mille RM-011 Felipe Massa watch. “I actually wore it on the podium, then called him to ask where to send it back. He said it was a present, and I haven’t taken it off since. Sometimes my wife jokes, 'That watch means more to you than I do!’”
Cav, as he’s known in his business, is softly spoken and has lost none of his native Manx accent with its Liverpudlian/Lancashire lilt. This all-round nice guy isn’t afraid to speak his mind, however. During last year’s Tour of Britain, he got off his bike to remonstrate with a spectator who was shouting abuse at the riders, telling him to have a go on the hill climb if he thought he could do better. He’s refreshingly confident and unruffled by media attention; when he wants to get his point across, he either touches you on the shoulder or he swears. It’s a frankness that has been misconstrued in the past as arrogance, but in truth the elite rider is just stating facts. “I kind of knew when I was a kid that I was good,” he explains. “I’m not saying it with any bravado; you just know when you’ve got something.”
Cavendish discovered cycling when he was 13, starting out on a BMX as most kids do, then persuading his parents to buy him a mountain bike and eventually one built for the road. “There’s not much else to do on the Isle of Man,” he laughs when asked if any other career appealed while growing up. The rider’s exceptional talent meant that he moved quickly up the ranks, beating cyclists in older categories until he realised he needed to leave the island to face stiffer competition. “I won on the Isle of Man straight away, but it’s a small pond, isn’t it?" he says. “I wanted to go to the UK to race.”
Like all great sportsmen, Cavendish is a tactical planner, even off the track. “For my GCSEs, I wanted to learn German, because I knew I wanted to ride for T-Mobile [their parent company was Deutsche Telekom],” says the 32-year-old, who has won 30 Tour de France stages. “I mapped it out.”
He now has his sights on Olympic gold – he won silver in 2016 – though his real passion remains firmly on Gallic tarmac. “The Tour de France is everything! It’s always the highlight of my year, the biggest stage and the biggest emotion,” Cavendish says. “It’s the only race in the year where you get the 200 best bike riders in the world, all in their peak condition and all facing the consequences of winning or losing. That’s bigger than the sport. Seventy per cent of pros won’t do the race in their career. It’s for the best of the best.”
On the inevitable subject of doping in cycling, which has unfortunately eclipsed some of the magic of the Tour de France in recent years, Cavendish is at his most animated. “I truly believe cycling is a cleaner sport,” he says. “But there is always going to be this stigma surrounding it. Is there positive testing in cycling because more people are cheating? No. There’s positive testing in cycling because there are more tests and they put the time, the effort and the money into catching the cheats.”
As for his own goals and aspirations, Cavendish, who was awarded an MBE in 2011, has no plans to retire in the next five years. “The mental stress can get you, especially when you’re expected to win. It’s bigger news if I’m second than if I’m first. That is the hardest thing, but I’m fortunate to be able to deal with that. I train in Italy most of the year, but I go back to the Isle of Man in winter. It’s wet and it’s windy. It gives you grit,” he laughs, and makes a growl like the Hulk. “What I love about cycling is the freedom. You can go away when you want, with who you want, how far you want. I still have that feeling.”