Mark Cavendish: The man behind the mask

MARK CAVENDISH takes a bite from a large chocolate croissant in an Italian bar in Soho and chews, and shrugs. He's just been asked if he's seen much of the World Cup. "I watched the last two games," he replies eventually, then shrugs again: "I don't know if I'm self-absorbed, but I've got my own stuff to worry about, you know?"

He can say that again. But Cavendish becomes animated when he is then asked if he sympathises with the scrutiny the English team is under. "Absolutely." Specifically, he identifies with someone to whom he has been compared in the past – Wayne Rooney. "What Rooney did to the camera (ranting at fans after the Algeria game] – you can put yourself in that position, yeah," he says.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of people in the world won't understand what that feels like, not only because they won't ever be in that position, but also because they don't have that mentality."

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Like Rooney, Cavendish, who won six stages of last year's Tour de France, is capable of brilliance and petulance. It was Dave Brailsford, the British Cycling performance director, who originally compared the two, pointing out that both possess a raging intensity that makes them the sportsmen – or forces of nature – they are, but which can also make them prone to moments of self-combustion.

Until recently, Cavendish's "moments" were like flashes of lightning – shocking and dramatic, but over quickly – but this season has seen him battling through a storm that has threatened to engulf him.

Most put the 25-year-old's difficulties down to a debilitating infection that followed dental surgery in the winter, but Cavendish's troubles date back further, and are cumulative, from a painful separation with his fiancee last year, to a near-fatal scooter crash involving his best friend and fellow Manxman, Jonny Bellis, to the imprisonment, for drugs-related offences, of his brother, Andy.

When, following his dental complications, Cavendish returned to racing in February, he was adamant that this season would be different to last, when he went to the Tour de France with 14 victories. So far this season he has three. But he says he is fresher ahead of this year's Tour, which begins on Saturday in Rotterdam. "Physically, yes," he says. "Mentally I've taken a bit of a knocking. But in January I said that the whole first part of my season was going to be sacrificed because I want to be good for the Tour. So I can sit here now and say that everything is exactly as planned. I'm sticking to my goal to be successful at the Tour and the world championships (in September]. I think the results will speak for themselves."

Two other incidents have landed Cavendish in hot water this season. In May he won a stage of the Tour de Romandie, celebrating with an "up yours" gesture that culminated in him flashing his "V"s. It was aimed at his critics, he said, but his team, HTC-Columbia, was unimpressed, and withdrew him from the race.

Then last week, at the Tour de Suisse, he was widely blamed for a mass pile-up after colliding with Heinrich Haussler 50 metres from the finish. The next morning it was reported that his fellow riders staged an anti-Cavendish "protest", apparently for his "lack of respect".

First, the victory celebration at Romandie. "It wasn't intended to be vulgar," explains Cavendish. "If I'd intended it to be vulgar, I'd have stuck my middle finger up. The two-fingered salute comes from Robin Hood times, like Agincourt and that, when they caught the archers and cut their two fingers off. So the archers did that" – Cavendish sticks up two fingers to illustrate – "to prove they still had them."

"It was kind of intended like that," he shrugs. "I know where it comes from. I didn't think about how people would take it."

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The Tour de Suisse crash on 15 June– the wounds are still visible on his right arm and back – was the kind of incident that is almost routine in a bunch sprint, with Haussler also at fault. But the "protest" was, says Cavendish, hugely exaggerated: "It was eight guys who didn't want me to start. I don't even know who half of them were. The rest of the peloton said, 'You're being stupid, we're going to race.' So the protest failed, but I stayed quiet. And if you stay quiet, you don't get your point across; sometimes that infuriates me."

Staying quiet doesn't come naturally to him. Yet it would be misleading to caricature Cavendish as a hot-head who – like Rooney – reached the summit of his sport at a ridiculously young age, and for whom every subsequent setback is held up as evidence of impending meltdown.

In fact, Cavendish is capable of quite staggering insight and self-awareness, even if he is more often judged by the flashes of temper or bursts of exuberance that tend to overwhelm him in the heat of competition. "It's my own fault that I'm portrayed differently to how I perceive myself sometimes," he admits. "No one wants to be perceived as an asshole."

The trouble, he explains, is that such assessments tend to be based on brief moments, usually post-race. Plus, "Journalism used to be about facts," he says, "but now there's a lot of opinion-based stuff."

In a similar vein, he rails against "sunlight-deprived people" who pass themselves off as experts in blogs and internet forums, before drawing the conclusion that, "If anyone's so shallow and so narrow minded that they want to assume they know my personality (based on the] 30 seconds they see straight after a bike race – which they've got no clue what it's like to be in – then those people aren't worth worrying about, or what they think of me."

Naturally – and at the risk of passing off an opinion as journalism – Cavendish does care. Then again, if he didn't – if, like Rooney, he didn't find himself permanently at odds with the 99.9 per cent of the population who just don't see or experience the world the way he does – he wouldn't be Mark Cavendish, unquestionably the most exciting, compelling and sometimes controversial cyclist in the world.