Book Review: "At Speed," by Mark Cavendish

Good Times again, eh mate?

If there is one word that we would definitely not use to describe Mark Cavendish, it would be "shy." Honest to the point of being considered arrogant; or detail-oriented to be mistaken as a micromanaging busybody, Cav is undoubtedly one of the most liveliest characters to grace the sporting world in a long long time. Known for his "shoot from the hip" style of press management, the Manx Missile is a directeur sportif's dream and a PR manager's nightmare. The fastest man on two wheels is also, the fastest mouth in the world, and a Cav press conference is a surefire guarantee for some juicy quotes and spicy talkback.  

It was Cav's magical 2008 tour - and its aftermath - that got me interested in bike racing in general. (Interested readers may want to read "Boy Racer" or watch "Chasing Legends") Hence, I was excited, to say the least; when British Cycling decided to put together a team in 2011 with the publicly stated goal of winning the Tour in the next 5 years. It was just a matter of time that Cavendish would sign on to the British dream. And we all know how that turned out.

I expected "At Speed" by Mark Cavendish (with help from Daniel Friebe) to be a tell-all memoir about the controversy surrounding his time at Team Sky. Although the tumultuous season does get its due, the bulk of the narrative spans the collapse of the HTC-Highroad team, the World Championships (Copenhagen), "The" year with Sky and immediate future with Omega-Pharma Quickstep.   

It is quite telling that the cover image for the copy that I read has Cav decked up in the OPQS kit, although the team occupies less than 15% real estate on the pages. In a nutshell, that one image says much what the rest of the book recounts in varying levels of detail. If "Boy Racer" was about the rise of Cav-phenomenon, this book describes how difficult it was to stay at the top. The moral of this story seems to be an optimistic outlook towards his forthcoming time at OPQS after the past few years of high-rollers.

Contrary to popular belief, sprinting in cycling is very much a team effort, and having the best sprinter in the world will not win you any glory if there are no teammates around that can support the big guy. That support was not lacking at HTC-Highroad, but in its closing act, the team did look like a ten-headed monster with every head pointing in a different direction. Cav describes his frustration with Bob Stapleton, the owner of the tech-backed outfit. Put in an environment where he felt as if everybody around the team management was using his name to their advantage, Cav reacted in the only way that Cav could - frustration and (literally) cold shouldering Bob towards the end of the season. It is perhaps the most important indicator of the "boy" racer turning into a "man" that Cav later acknowledges that he acted perhaps a tad immaturely at the time, and Bob simply did not have the money that the rider L'Equipe called "Mozart of the Eleven-Tooth Sprocket" commanded.

The book is certainly not as exhilarating a read as his previous autobiography, but it is more compelling precisely so. Rather than a metronomic description of stratospheric stage wins, the absence of such superlative performance provides us an insight into the mind of a compulsive, analytic, dedicated, honest professional racer - who also happens to be the fastest man on two wheels. Known for his almost neurotic insistence on tidiness, organization and pre-ride homework, we get a glimpse of a maybe-future directeur sportif who understands the importance of details. Mark Renshaw and Cav would scout the route if possible, then study it in Google Street View the night before the stage to make sure there were no surprises, after having memorized every twist and turn in the final kilometer so that they could ride it blindfolded. 

OK, so I made up the last word of that sentence, but in reality, the amount of homework put in by Mark Renshaw and Cav would make that at least marginally possible. Cavendish is almost effervescent in describing his relationship with Renshaw, a rider and a friend that he completely trusts. The disintegration of HTC-Highroad left its scars on Cav's mental focus, and he signed up for the British Dream with hopes of finding a similar team. But Team Sky's engineering approach to winning via marginal gains sucked out all the 'fun' from bike riding - not only for Cav, but if we believe his account, for other riders as well. The Team Sky juggernaut did bring about a new way to compute winnability via purely quantifiable metrics, but purists would argue that this also made for dull racing. That riders were not just machines with specific power output at specific intervals in the race, but unpredictable people whose very unpredictability made for exciting heroics and race viewing. Best facilities, best equipment and best riders in the world did not necessarily add up to the best team experience. With two Tour wins and lots of silverware from around the globe, it is entirely possible that the management at Team Sky is having the last laugh!

Not all quite right on the home front?

"At Speed" shares with "My Time" a common theme that ties the two riders together. They each respect cycling and are aware of the weight of history on their shoulders. But where Wiggins' career has had its customary spectacular rise one season and fall the next, Cavendish's rise was followed by a small dip coupled with a new runway for a take-off into the 2014 season. Cavendish's transition into a canny brand-ambassador from the somewhat naive kid-on-a-bike is also what makes this book more interesting. Also, as with any kind of group dynamic in real-life, what we have in the two books is just the version of events from their individual perspectives. We will have to wait until Froome's book comes out to read the third side of the story. 

Cav's savvy media-handling (never thought I could write THAT in a sentence, really!) also comes to fore in describing the events off-the-bike. Where Wiggins emphasizes the time spent with his family in greater detail (to preserve the meticulously built image of family-guy turned knight?), Cav spends exactly as much time so as to point to a few interesting events (meeting his now wife Peta Todd, birth of daughter Delilah) to tick off the bullet points, but not reveal too much on the personal front. 

Overall, the book paints a very clear picture of a rider who is driven, ambitious, extremely methodical, and yet, at his core, gets on a bike simply because he likes to ride fast .... really fast.

Postscript: The subtext of the two reviews seems to have been well reflected in real-life events in the recent past (see image at top) where both riders enjoyed success at the Tour of California, this time as part of two different teams. The smiles on their faces are worth another book by itself!