Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins may ride to a different tune, but the team-mates for club and country could combine to win Britain’s first gold of the Games. Before the super-cyclists put pedal to the medal, GQ Olympics swaps their yellow and green jerseys for finely tuned be-spoke tailoring.
Simon Mottram, CEO of the Rapha apparel company – and long time Paul Smith collaborator, has a theory that there exists an arcane, stylised apartheid in British cycling. Mottram’s hypothesis references the Thirties, when massed-start road-cycling races were still banned in Britain, causing riders to split into not just two disciplines but two cultural tribes. “The time trialists, who came to the fore during the ban, were proudly technical, focused, ascetic, antisocial types,” says Mottram. “Then there were the more flamboyant sorts, the ‘roadmen’, who looked to Continental-style racing for inspiration, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. They wore sunglasses and Italian jerseys… and, inevitably, listened to jazz music.”
Break away to 80 years later and these two divergent riding methodologies, character traits, techniques, aesthetics and philosophies survive and thrive together in Great Britain’s two greatest living cyclists: Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish – poles apart stylistically, but also essential to one another’s success. Cavendish, the sprinter, is the Continental romantic, the media-friendly, green jersey glamour boy who hangs with Paul Smith, wears an Audemars Piguet watch, dates a model (Peta Todd) and has a previous career as a talented ballroom dancer. (Yes, really.)
The reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year and inveterate tweeter has a sturdy, keirinracer’s physique, impishly Mediterranean looks and a superhero sobriquet: “The fastest man on two wheels.” Psychologically, Cavendish, 27, is an open book, he won’t hesitate to tell you how he feels “emotional” when he pulls on his rainbow-striped World Championship livery.
Then there’s Wiggins: dry, gruff, taciturn and toothpick-thin with a Paul Weller-ish feather cut. He tells GQ how he likes to pass lonely hotelroom nights strumming on a guitar and listening to blues. Born in Ghent, Belgium, but raised in London, as a boy he hung out at the Herne Hill track but now lives in Eccleston, Lancashire, to be closer to the Manchester Velodrome.
Wiggins, 32, you get the impression, prefers race-wins to nicknames. While Cavendish wins TV awards, bags epic sprint triumphs at the Tour de France (he’ll soon challenge for Eddy Merckx’s stage wins record) and can win the UCI Road World Championships, Wiggins racks up wins on the road less publicised – this year he became the first British rider since Tom Simpson, in 1967, to win the gruelling Paris-Nice race. Along with Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans, Wiggins is one the favourites to win the 2012 Tour de France.
On the course there will be no room for even one mistake
Here at the cycling training Mecca of northern Majorca, in the Team Sky camp, which, under the watch of team principal Dave Brailsford, doubles as the Team GB camp, the talk is only of the Olympics road race. The focus is on getting Cavendish through the nine climbs of Box Hill and across the line on the Mall for gold on the very first day of the two-week spectacle, just six days after the final stage of Le Tour. The normally riotous end-of-tour parties (Team Sky’s always being the wildest) will be subdued as Cavendish and Wiggins take time to rest. “It’ll be a kind of regimented lockdown,” says Cavendish. “In between, I think we’ll be mostly resting, having massages, maybe doing a few circuits of the Olympic course.” Is he worried about the Olympics’ proximity to the Tour? “It’ll be the same for pretty much everyone, won’t it?” he says with a smile.
Actually, ever the passionate rouleur, Cav has already ridden the course many times (he won the London-Surrey Cycle Classic last year – a rehearsal for the Olympic road race). “And whenever I’m in London, I’ll make sure I drive down Knightsbridge towards the Mall, check out the run in to the finish,” he says. “As I’m driving I’m imagining the end of the race, visualising crossing the line…” Presumably in first place, right? Cavendish allows himself a golden grin.
How will he find strength for the final sprint? “It sounds weird, but racing is all about conserving energy,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about not going as fast as you can, but controlling your speed, getting your handlebar position right. On the Olympic course there will be no room for even one mistake. It’s not like the World Championships [in Copenhagen] as we’ll have just five guys in our team, so we won’t be able to control things like we can in some races.”
And Wiggins? He has a bombshell to drop. “I’ve actually never been up Box Hill,” he shrugs. Not that the North Downs hillock will be too much of a stretch for the man who has chased Lance Armstrong up Alpe d’Huez. “As far as the Olympics goes, I am just a GC [general classification] rider. I’m not there to try to win the race,” he says. “People who don’t know anything about cycling find it hard to understand that mentality, but on a team like this we are here to help each other.”
I’m not there to win the Olympics. People find that hard to understand
Do Cavendish and Wiggins get on? “We have a great relationship,” says Wiggins. “There are lots of things people don’t know about us… Like how Cav went to a charity auction recently and bought me a guitar [previously owned by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers].” Wiggins knows the dream scenario will be Team Sky’s romantic and ascetic returning to London with green and yellow jerseys respectively, then for Team GB to get gold for Cavendish on the road and Wiggins to win the time trial. Can they triumph in both events? Silly question.
“I wouldn’t have joined this team [Sky] if I didn’t think it was possible,” says Cavendish. “This is the best team, the best setup with the best coach… and it has the advantage of being Team GB – that’s never been done before.”