Of course, he’s relaxed now because he’s at home. But there’s more to it than that. The Cavendish of 2009 or 2010 would have been livid at having crashed out of the first stage of the Tour, but he’s surprisingly philosophical about it.
“I’d have handled it differently before,” he says. “I was young. People forget, especially when you’ve been institutionalised since 18 like I was at the Academy. You don’t mature like normal people.”
You’ve changed, Mark, I say. You’re less…
“You can say it. I was a dickhead.”
He’ll admit to being upset just the one time after his crash: two days later, on the day of the London stage, also won by Kittel. “I went to a friend’s house for a barbecue, and watched the finish. I thought the lads would do well – it was a good finish for Renshaw, but Kittel won, and he hardly got a gap on them.
“I just turned around and didn’t say a word. I don’t drink. I’m not exactly teetotal, but I rarely drink. That day I got drunk and passed out. After that I said I wasn’t going to watch any more sprints.
“I didn’t get bitter off it, and I was happy that the team were doing well and I buzz off that anyway. If it’s me crossing the line first or a team-mate, I get the same feeling. I was really happy to see how they were doing.”
Fatherhood and maturity – he’s 29 – have smoothed off some of Cavendish’s spiky edges, and he’s much better at not kicking back at criticism, in spite of provocation from the sidelines. He has done an effective job of dividing cycling fans into entirely discrete and diametrically opposed groups of admirers and critics, and it used to look like he quite enjoyed winding up the latter group, or at least refused to compromise in any way to make them happy.
The provocation has been extreme, at times – during the 2013 Tour he was allegedly sprayed with urine during the Mont St Michel time trial. At the recent Tour of Britain, he reported directly on Twitter: “If your life’s so sad that you stand on a climb & shout ‘Go Fatty’ to me while I’m pulling the peloton, at least have the balls to shout it as I’m coming towards you & not after I’ve just passed you. Or just give me a doughnut. Then we both get something.”
You get the impression that the Mark Cavendish of 2009 would have just told him to eff off.
There’s one more thing that struck me at the time about meeting Cavendish in 2010. The intensity with which he attacked cycling, and life, was palpable. He’d already won ten Tour stages by that point, and Milan-Sanremo, and it was easy to believe him when he said that it wasn’t his physical gifts that made him so successful, but a powerful combination of attention to detail and raw willpower. I could almost imagine him burning out, if he’d not carried on at almost the same rate, with 15 more Tour stages and a World Championships over the next few seasons.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, win. And it’s even more difficult to keep winning. (As Cavendish points out, riders on his team who have seen what he’s done and tried to strike out on their own have found it more difficult than Cavendish makes it look: “Look at Renshaw,” he says.)
“I’ve got the same intensity, but there are really different reasons for it,” he says, pointing at Peta and Delilah. “Before, I was just up my own arse and everything was for personal gain. But now it’s for my family. I’m still as driven but for different reasons.
“Like…” He pauses and looks into the space in front of him. “…I don’t understand my logic before. I really don’t understand what the fuck was so important before. Who was I winning for? Who was I trying to impress? I can’t even remember or think what it was all for. It had to be for something. Did I want material gain? I don’t know. I have no idea what my drive was."
This is an extract from issue 50 of Rouleur, published in October 2014. It is available to buy in two editions - one features Mark Cavendish on the cover, the other has an original design by Sir Paul Smith, created exclusively for Rouleur.