Words: Stuart Hood
Are you quicker than Chris Hoy?
It’s chalk and cheese. If I entered Chris’ event in the Olympics, I would be one of the bottom few. If Chris entered a professional road race he wouldn’t be last, but he wouldn’t be anywhere near the front either.
Is it frustrating that he’s a Sir, whereas nobody in Britain knows who you are?
Not one bit. It’s just how it is. When I grew up cycling wasn’t mainstream in Britain, so I never expected it to be. It doesn’t even cross my mind. In Britain track cycling is big. On the continent road cycling is big.
Okay, so what speeds can you clock?
Last year in the Tour I was clocked at 77kmph on a flat sprint. But I can hold that for maybe 250m. For the rest of the day we ride probably around 50kmph for most of the stage, then raise it to 60kmph for the last ten kilometers, then 75+kmph for the final 250m.
Are bunch sprints as vicious as they look?
I need to get to the line first and that’s all I think about. You are going to get bashed, sure, but if you have time to think about that you are losing focus on crossing the line first. That’s why I explode after I cross the line. If I do it before then that’s emotion, and if you have room for emotion you aren’t concentrating.
So it’s just head down and go?
For me, yes, but I am lucky. I do things sports psychologists tell cyclists to do naturally. That said, I study all my opponents, too. I have to know how they jump, when they jump and how long they can hold their peak power. At the minute no one can beat me, but if someone does, then I will have to study and find some way to beat them.
Can you descibe a typical day’s training?
My normal regime is to go out and do six or seven hours on the road every day. I live in Italy during the summer, and basically just go out and do a ride on my own or with a riding partner that includes two 1,000m climbs every day and that’s it. By the end of the year, including racing, I’ll have done about 35,000-45,000km. Some guys will do 50,000km. It sounds a lot, but I worked in a bank for two years and I can tell you a day on a bike is one thing. A day in a bank is something else entirely.
Is the Tour de France the hardest of the lot?
Yes. It’s the 200 best bike riders in the world, all in their best condition and motivated to do well, so uphill, downhill, left, right, forward – it’s at least 5km an hour faster than every other race. Plus the consequences of winning and losing are more, so everyone takes bigger risks. It’s an amazing, daunting experience, but this year I will finish. And I will win a stage along the way.
Isn’t that a bit presumptuous?
Not at all, it’s realistic. I say I will win a stage in the Tour de France, because I will. If I didn’t I would be called ‘plucky’. But the fact I say I can and then go out and do it means I am arrogant. Nobody ever asks me what I can’t do.
What can’t you do?
I can’t win this year’s World Championships and I will never win the Tour de France. I want to win it, but it’s a dream not a reality, so I won’t say it.
Why can’t you win it?
Physiologically it is impossible. When I’m at the peak of my career, about 28 or 29 and am in the best shape with the best equipment and best teammates, I will never even be in the top half of the field, because I will never be able to climb.
Why bother to climb at all then?
To survive. And because I have come to realise everyone suffers on the climbs. The people who can climb suffer to succeed. The rest of us suffer to survive. And if I survive my reward will come on a flat day, which I can win.
What’s the worst you’ve ‘suffered’?
A stage in this year’s Giro D’Italia finished up one of the highest mountain passes in Europe – 25km uphill. I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough and my body went to a place you don’t want to go. I blew. For the last 5km I couldn’t lift my head.
Do you wake up in pain every day?
Yeah, but that’s part and parcel of cycling. A normal person might complain, but I don’t know any different. I wake up in pain. That’s normal.
Are saddle sores normal too?
They’re a big, painful problem. At the Giro I had more pain in my gooch than I did in my legs. Often they get so bad you can’t ride your bike.
Talking ‘gooches’, is there a gentleman’s agreement to stop when someone needs a wee?
If the race is on and you are desperate for the toilet, you’re unlucky. You have to hold it in, or just do it. But when nothing is happening and a respected rider stops, everyone stops.
Can you respect someone who comes back from a drug ban?
It depends. A mate of mine took a vitamin that had only just gone onto the banned list. He was careless and should pay the consequences, but I can’t dislike him. But Patrik Sinkewitz? He was on my team and blatantly cheated. He should never be allowed back in the sport. If I ever see him in the same peloton as me I will jump off my bike, straight onto him and kick the shit out of him.
Sceptics have accused you of doping…
They have – it’s so fucking narrow minded it’s unbelievable. There are cheaters in every country and in every aspect of life. But the fact of the matter is cycling puts an effort into catching them, so it catches them. I know that if dope testers wake me up at six in the morning, I can piss in a pot, then go back to bed and sleep safe and sound in the knowledge they cannot and will never be able to take my results away from me.
How often do you get tested?
Every time I win. Plus my team has an anti-doping programme and then I get random visits. All that meant I was urine or blood tested 59 times in 2008, but that’s just the way it is. People in other sports complain about it, but to me it’s part of my job – the same as eating carbs before a race or shaving my legs. It’s not nice eating pasta for breakfast, but I have to do it to perform well. It’s the same with dope testing.
How is shaving your legs?
I hate it. Hate it. There are some guys who are 60 and still shave their legs, because they think it looks nice, but it just doesn’t feel right to me. The day I stop riding my bike for a living is the day I stop shaving my legs. Fact.
Finally, you must have some pretty awesome tan lines.
You could say that (unzips top to reveal incredible two-tone skin). Let’s just say I get some funny looks on the beach…
Mark’s book Boy Racer is out now