In his first entry from the 2011 Giro d’Italia, Anthony Tan explores the conundrum that is Mark Cavendish, and why in cycling, money talks.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

When I wrote this story last year on the mercurial relationship between Mark Cavendish and his HTC-High Road team, or more specifically its management, it was clear all was not well; the usual backslapping that goes hand-in-hand with Cav's ever-increasing tally of victories had momentarily gone walkabout.

The impetus for my yarn stemmed from some rather candid observations, enunciated by Cavendish at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. This is the guts of what he said:

"I've got great family, great friends, great team-mates. People around me appreciate when it's like that. I'm not sure if my team does. Not my team as a whole, but the manager. I've not been offered a new contract yet – I don't know why that is. I'm committed to a contract I signed a few years ago, [but] there's been no goodwill, no bonuses, nothing. I feel kind of abused for what I've achieved."

He also told the UK's Observer newspaper: "There are a couple of people whose job it is to get new sponsors and it's frustrating when they can't and we suffer for it. I'm just frustrated because I've been massively underpaid this year and next because for some reason we can't get more sponsors."

High Road CEO and team owner, Bob Stapleton, to whom the comments were largely directed, managed to put on his fireman's hat and stamp out a few of the burning issues, most notably keeping Cavendish on side and within the team, and the sharks at Team Sky at bay.

One concern still aflame, however, was the lack of a co-title sponsor.

When US-based apparel giant Columbia Sportswear chose to pull out at the end of last season, leaving smartphone brand HTC the sole title sponsor, the ideal scenario was that Columbia be replaced with another backer of similar investment. Yet despite 62 wins in 2010 – 24 more than second-placed Saxo Bank – Stapleton could not make that materialise. To be fair, it was perhaps more a sign of the depressed state of the American economy and its embattled multinationals than the Californian entrepreneur's negotiating prowess, who isn't used to the word 'no'.

Still, Stapleton, the astute businessman he is, saved a fair chunk of cash with the exit of some big-name riders including Michael Rogers, André Greipel (who racked up more wins than Cavendish) and Maxime Monfort. In total seven departed, replaced by six, none of them big names or commanding generous salaries. That one, German neo-pro John Degenkolb, second to our own Michael 'Bling' Matthews at the Under-23 Worlds in Geelong, has fortuitously turned out to be one of the revelations this spring, already with three wins to his credit, is luck more than foresight.

A handsome proportion of Stapleton's savings went straight into the hip pocket of one resident from the Isle of Man, whom more than ever before, the current team is built around. Prior to the Giro, Cavendish, who, since turning pro in 2005, has raced more than ever so far this season, had only two wins to his name. But this time last year he also had just a pair of victories – and look what he did...

While some may view his comments in Delhi as that of a surly and spoilt brat, I disagree.

Cavendish was just being Cavendish. As his Twitter bio reads: "Fast sprinter, faster talker. Disclaimer: May cause offence."

Brutal honesty may get Cav' into a spot of bother now and again, but I'll take frankness over fibbing any day – especially in this age where recidivist dopers continue to bullshit as nonchalantly as they stick a needle in the place where the sun don't shine.

And maybe if Cav' hadn't aired his grievances as publicly as he did last year, perhaps he wouldn't have got his pay-rise and HTC-High Road would be all-the-poorer for it, because he'd be riding for Team Sky right now.

A Cavendish-McEwen hybrid...

There's another thing Cavendish has recently been made aware of: an Italian lookalike by the name of Andrea Guardini.

Not his face or mannerisms or the proclivity to say the first thing at the top of his mind. But in stature, physique, leg speed, and the apparent ease with which he wins, they're virtually identical.

"Yes, I have the same physique as Cavendish," Guardini said at the Tour de Langkawi, where he took a record-equalling five stage wins.

"We have similar characteristics. He's my idol. I want to become the same as him, but even with one quarter of his results would be enough to make me happy."

The 21-year-old neo-pro, who broke a 34-year-old Italian record when he won 19 races as an amateur in 2010, has already trousered eight pro wins this season, the last two at the Tour of Turkey and before that, a stage at the Tour of Oman.

But having seen that octet of victories either first-hand or played and replayed on the TV set, it also seems Guardini has the innate manoeuvrability of one Robbie McEwen. "After [the 2002 world championships in] Zolder," he said, "I also became a big fan of Robbie McEwen for his way of sprinting, his rush, his agility. I see myself in him and also in Mark Cavendish."

According to a story told by French cycling journalist Jean-François Quenét in the current issue of RIDE magazine, Cavendish was walking into a bar in Tuscany (his Italian home is in Quarrata, west of Florence) one day, along with his friend Max Sciandri, when Luca Scinto, Guardini's sport director at Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli, was also there. "Remember the name 'Guardini' because he'll give you a hard time in about three years from now," Scinto warned.

Scinto had in mind to send Guardini to the Giro, where Farnese Vini is competing, for 10 days, but only if his precocious fast-twitcher had shown enough improvement in the mountains.

His exclusion signals that he is yet to grapple with the roads when they turn vertical but like Cavendish, he will no doubt improve sooner rather than later.

So, just when you think Cavendish will have his own way for the next five years, along comes a guy like Guardini, who is quickly becoming an ominous hybrid of the two men he idolises.

Cav' will be at the top of his game for a while yet, but winning doesn't last forever. I know that, he knows that, and so does Bob Stapleton.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_tan