Mark Cavendish: how to get the best from winter cycling
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Considering how many of his triumphs have come under a hot summer sun, you might expect Mark Cavendish to enjoy cycling in the summertime most of all. This is the man, after all, who shares the all-time record for Tour de France stage wins (34, tied with Eddy Merckx), who has won the Tour on points classification twice, this year and in 2011, as well as a silver Olympic medal at Rio 2016 for the indoor omnium. And yet the 36-year-old is really a winter cyclist down to his bones – a product of his upbringing on the Isle of Man, the 85,000-strong fief that sits between the English and Northern Irish coasts.
“There’s something special about a frosty morning,” he says. “There’s no ice, but there’s frost, there’s dry, crisp air. You wrap up, you go out and it’s a beautiful feeling. You get home and you feel… fresh.” Despite over two decades of cycling at the very highest level, this remains “something that I absolutely love,” says the married father of four. “Getting out on a bike, and just enjoying it. I’ve done them how-many-thousand times in my life, and I still love it to this day.”
Cavendish is speaking at the end of a remarkable year; his sudden surge in the 2021 Tour de France, nearly out of nowhere, after several years struggling with poor form, the lingering effects of Epstein-Barr virus and a clinical depression, has been hailed as positively phoenix-like. Right now he would like to be training as usual, but he has to wait a little longer, having broken two ribs and suffered a punctured lung in a race last month. They really need to heal. “I’m used to riding with a bit of pain,” he says in his lightly gruff Manx accent. “That’s normal. It’s just the actual health side I have to respect.”
Professionals of Cavendish’s calibre often spend the off-season cycling in warmer climates like southern Spain or Italy, but he is quite clear: cycling at home is “always the best place for me”. As he says drily, “it’s not going to be a disappointment [at home] if you get bad weather.” Also, “it’s pretty unstructured. It’s riding like it is for anyone else. I can go out with my friends, and just ride having a chat.” That sociable aspect has always been important. “I didn’t come from a cycling family,” he explains. “I just loved going out on my bike. I remember my first club run: there was snow on the ground and I went out with no gloves on, just a jumper - and I liked it… It was always the actual social aspect that I buzzed off.” (He did end up getting gloves, though.)
Here, then, are Cavendish’s tips for cycling in the festive season:
Invest in one decent, multi-layer, high-tech cycling jacket – it can last you all season. “I’d have always recommended having several, in case you crash or have one in the wash,” says Cavendish, but things have changed: cycling gear has gone far beyond “all Lycra and synthetics”, and become definitively high-tech. “The most important thing is that they have the multi-layers that can trap the air between them.” It means that “I’ve been able to ride a whole winter in varying temperatures using just one style of jacket.”
Don’t overdress. “It’s a mistake a lot of people can make,” he adds. “You don’t want to be too hot – because it means you’re going to sweat more and become wet, which will make you cold anyway.”
… But do cover your head. “Put a hat on under your helmet – it’s where you lose the most heat. You can always take a hat off, whereas a jacket, if you start with a big jacket, you can’t always. And get gloves that fit well, so your fingers aren’t sliding off your brakes.”
Invest in some winter tyres. “You don’t want racing tyres on in the winter,” says the man who is regularly listed as the greatest racing cyclist of all time. “Obviously they’re lighter, they’re faster, but you’re not looking at speed.” Winter tyres are puncture-resistant, and have a better grip if the roads are wet.
Go in a group if you can – it’s half the fun. On the Isle of Man, “cycling groups meet to head out every day of the year… There’s people there winter or summer, and it’s been the same meeting point for decades. There’ll be professionals there, veterans, men and women, juniors… they all go as a group, and it’s just enjoyable. It’s why I started cycling, it’s why most people started cycling, and it’s always a bigger incentive to drag yourself out of the house if you know other people are going to do it as well.”
In which case, a mudguard is only polite. “I’d always suggest it anyway, because it keeps you dry and keeps your clothes pristine, but especially if you’re riding with other people, it’s common courtesy to have your mudguards on.”
Take a hot drink. Cavendish won’t quite endorse a hot toddy. “I don’t recommend taking alcohol with you,” he says cautiously, “but definitely, early in the season, in some of our races, instead of having sports drinks in our bottles we’ll take tea.” Builder’s? “A black lemon tea with some honey – it’s got enough sugar to keep you going.”
Allow yourself a day off. “I’ve never rode my bike on Christmas Day,” says Cavendish. “Every day either side, but never – even when I was growing up.” He sees other professionals post on social media about Christmas Day rides, and he remains sceptical. “You can take a day off, know what I mean? I factor it into my training programme anyway. I train pretty much every day of the year, but Christmas Day I’m having off!”
Tour de Force: My History-Making Tour de France, by Mark Cavendish, is published by Ebury Spotlight at £20