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optimist - pessimist

The Cult: Mark Cavendish & Laura Trott

As two of the main protagonists in Team GB’s cycling triumphs, Cavendish and Trott are national heroes. They have antithetical characters, and both deserve a place in The Cult.

by Will Magee
Aug 23 2016, 9:06pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

This week's inductees to The Cult are two contrasting characters of British cycling. You can read past entries here.

Cult Grade: Optimist – Pessimist

When it comes to the main protagonists of Team GB's success at the Rio Olympics, there are few characters more dissimilar than Mark Cavendish and Laura Trott. In a British cycling team packed with personalities, the pair are at opposite ends of the psychological spectrum. While Cavendish is a sudden lightning storm, light and breezy one moment and thundering with rage the next, Trott is a cheerful afternoon, sunny in her outlook whatever the circumstances. They are light and dark, calm and fury, yin and yang, and both of them are national heroes in the velodrome. They have antithetical public personas, and both of them had a part to play in Britain's unprecedented Olympic success.

Taken together, Cavendish and Trott represent the two sides of the sporting ego. Cavendish thrives in the limelight, quipping, quibbling and never shying away from confrontation. His post-race interviews are the stuff of legend, his voice often dripping with distinctive sarcasm as he chews through even the best-intentioned questions. His racing is similarly belligerent, which perhaps explains the litany of crashes he's left in his wake. Somehow, when things get nasty, Cavendish rarely seems to go down in the jumble of wheels, spokes and bloodied knees.

Meanwhile, Trott is anything but a natural antagonist. Her races are characterised by her power, speed and tactical intelligence, with little of the dark arts which Cavendish so liberally employs. She is a wonderfully awkward character, in contrast to the overbearing confidence and truculence of Cavendish. She likes Bruce Springsteen, chocolate for breakfast and the occasional vodka coke (if this Q&A with The Guardian is anything to go by), and is almost certainly the most famous person to grow up in Cheshunt. Though she's deadly serious about her cycling, Trott's ambition for fame doesn't seem to extend beyond Hertfordshire. The same modest profile doesn't apply for Cavendish, who is a powerful magnet for attention, welcome or otherwise.

A typical Laura Trott interview

On top of all that, Trott has an infectious enthusiasm which smacks of the eternal optimist. She laughs her way through interviews, she bursts with pride at her achievements and, more than anything, she speaks with genuine passion about her sport. With her best years in the velodrome still ahead of her, she radiates a sense that anything is possible. Cavendish, by contrast, strikes a much darker tone.

A typical Mark Cavendish interview. Note the difference

Much like any misunderstood genius, Cavendish often speaks with a certain fatalism. It's almost as if he feels sure he will be misconstrued, a fate to which he is gloomily resigned. This is often masked by his biting sense of humour, as well as his not inconsiderable charm. When he's not losing his temper or bemoaning negative headlines, he can be something close to amiable. That said, he has a penchant for pessimism. In the aftermath of winning silver in Rio, his first emotion was one of disappointment. He'd have preferred to win gold, he said in front of the waiting cameras. "Hey, that's just how I am."

Point of Entry: Assuming, Unassuming

Both Trott and Cavendish have cycled since a young age, but they were poles apart even in their earliest origins. Trott was born with a collapsed lung and diagnosed with asthma in childhood, taking up sport in an attempt to help her condition. Few would have guessed that the girl with respiratory problems would go on to be one of Britain's greatest Olympians, and all before her 25th birthday. Having made the journey from inhalers to gold medals, Trott's optimism should come as little surprise.

If Trott's cycling career was born of unassuming origins, it's only right that Cavendish should have excelled from an early age. Having bossed the local BMX scene on his native Isle of Man, he made the step up in his early teens. Speaking to Procycling Magazine, Cavendish once traced his success back to getting his first proper bike. "I asked for a mountain bike for my 13th birthday," he said. "The very next day, I went out and beat everyone."

The Moment: The Omnium, Rio 2016

While the medals that Trott and Cavendish won in Rio are far from their only defining achievements, they were won under particular pressure and massive expectation of success. With Cavendish missing out on a medal in both the Beijing and London Games, Rio represented perhaps his final chance at Olympic glory. Trott was only 20 years of age when she won her first two golds at London 2012, exploding onto the scene as a relative newcomer. This summer, she competed with the hopes of a nation on her shoulders.

Unsurprisingly, the two riders handled the pressure very differently. While Trott remained sunny but concentrated, upbeat but focussed, Cavendish was a ball of anger and energy, and it showed in his every move. Both Trott and Cavendish won medals in the omnium, but their races could not have been more different. While Trott dominated the field from start to finish, sailing round the velodrome in a manner which was practically serene, Cavendish scrapped and battled his way to silver, causing characteristic chaos in the process.

Footage of Mark Cavendish's crash in the men's omnium

Part way through the men's final, Cavendish swung aggressively into the chasing pack while attempting to attack the field. He collided with Korean cyclist Sanghoon Park, who was knocked from his bike and sent tumbling to the floor. Eventual gold medalist Elia Viviani and Australian rider Glenn O'Shea were wiped out in the immediate aftermath, though both managed to continue the race. Park wasn't so lucky, and was soon being rushed out of the arena with an oxygen mask on his face.

Speaking to reporters in the aftermath of the race, Cavendish at least took the blame for the crash. "It was my fault, I should have been looking where I was going a bit more," he said, an assessment which could have earned him Olympic gold for understatement. That was the sole note of apology in an otherwise bullish couple of hours, which included a particularly chippy chat with the BBC. Having been left out of the team pursuit squad amidst reports of tensions with Bradley Wiggins, his response to being asked to wait for an interview was to smirk and ask: "You'd be straight on for Brad, wouldn't you?" He went on to congratulate his fellow riders on their pursuit gold, though he couldn't help but give off the sardonic air of a genius scorned.

While Cavendish was embroiled in all the usual drama, Trott was a picture of pure happiness after her win in the women's omnium. That was her fourth gold medal, making her Great Britain's most successful female Olympic competitor and maintaining her unbeaten record at the Games. She dismounted from her bike with a disbelieving grin on her face, and proceeded to just about hold it together while speaking to the BBC, even if she did sound as if she was struggling to talk, breathe and suppress her tears all at once.

Laura Trott after her victory in the women's omnium // EPA Images/Alejandro Ernesto

Here was the contrast between the two cycling superstars, embodied in those few moments of excitement and adrenaline after their respective wins. In those artless few minutes of emotion and triumph, Cavendish was a brooding maelstrom, Trott a beaming ball of joy. In his fundamental, stripped-back state, the Manxman simmered with latent resentments, while Trott could barely conceal her glee. Some would say that's the difference between winning gold as opposed to silver. More than that, though, it's the definitive difference between Mark Cavendish and Laura Trott.

Closing Statements

"It's always been my dream to cycle around a track in circles. It's been my life since I was eight years old."

Laura Trott, during an interview with The Guardian in which she also admitted to having almost burnt her house down trying to bake a potato.

"I actually don't know if I can be arsed answering to all you lot in four years."

Mark Cavendish, speaking to the media about his potential retirement in the aftermath of winning his silver medal.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: Dan_Draws