As I understand it, the whole point of autobiography is to set the record straight, some sense that only the subject can truly elucidate his or her own life and motivations. So it is perhaps telling that Mark Cavendish has released his second such volume prior to turning 30. A cynic might say that Mr. Cavendish is simply cashing in on his current fame, commoditizing his celebrity as it were, but upon reading one discovers the Manx sprinter has had a real tilt at self examination, and that the volume is quite revealing, whether it reveals the character its author intends or not.
At Speed: My Life in the Fast Lane is out now from Velopress.
What seems absolutely clear throughout is that the truth matters to Mark Cavendish. He seems to take real pleasure in correcting misconceptions about his move from Team Sky to Omega Pharma Quickstep, for example. It is also clear that he is a sensitive and sometimes impetuous character, difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis, a fact only ameliorated by a dawning self awareness. There are dozens of points in the narrative when he gives his version of a conflict or falling out only to concede that he probably handled his end badly or that he understands, in retrospect, the reasons decisions he didn’t care for were made.
The resounding Cavendish trope is that he is an ego maniac, that his deliberate efforts to credit teammates for wins are merely PR exercises, but that simple view doesn’t account for his ongoing crises of confidence and low self esteem. He’s a star that needs constant reassurance. He needs to win bike races. He’s a man with a chip on his shoulder who delights in proving his critics and detractors wrong. This isn’t the approach of a fully mature adult, but if At Speed does one thing well, it is to document its author’s progress toward that maturity.
Before writing this review, I went back and read what I wrote about Cavendish’s first autobiography, Boy Racer. There, I asked, “Is the tension between self-doubt and superior ability a recipe that breeds both winning and gracelessness at the same time?” Having read At Speed, I now see that this question is a little unfair. Cav at 28 is different than Cav at 25.
Told he wouldn’t make it as a pro cyclist, he made himself a superstar by sheer force of will. Coping with fame and wealth in the context of pro sports is a difficult job for anyone, but the Manxman is a hyperactive extrovert. He feels an overwhelming need to succeed, and he needs to share it with everyone around him. Extroverts draw their energy from other people, which explains his need to have a roommate who will listen to his incessant chatter at the hotel before and after the race, but it also points up a challenge for him, because he depends on others for his sense of self-worth.
It is no surprise then that his marriage to Peta Todd and the birth of their first child seem to have grounded him. He doesn’t need as much validation from a coach or a team anymore. All the fundaments of his success are shifting, and now he is a man struggling to see himself in the right light. Perhaps writing a second autobiography is part of that process.
At Speed is an interesting read, if only for the retelling of the big moments of Cavendish’s career. And it stands to reason that there will be another volume in this series, that its main character will reveal more of himself, probably just as soon as he discovers it.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti