Blazin' Saddles

Head in the Sky, feet on the ground

Blazin' Saddles

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Mark Cavendish

When Sky first entered the professional peloton as the sponsor of Dave Brailsford's British-based cycling team it put Sky Sports News in a bit of a quandary.

You see, the 24-hour rolling sports news channel renowned for sturdy smidgens of sensationalism struggles at the best of times when promoting mainstream sports from an unbiased point of view.

But the sponsorship deal between Sky and a cycling team meant that - all of a sudden - Sky Sports News was on terra incognita. Seeing their blonde totty and cheesy male presenters grapple with a sport that wasn't football, golf or cricket was a painful process.

SSN had clearly been told by the men upstairs that cycling (but through a Team Sky prism) was now to be pushed - but the squad's stuttering start on the road meant that presenters, who had no idea what they were talking about in the first place, had to convince all those armchair sports fans that Greg Henderson's "stunning" eighth place finish in stage three of the Tour of Qatar was just that - stunning.

At least the Sky Sports team had Bradley Wiggins to eulogise - although the arrival of the best-placed British Tour rider since Robert Millar ramped up SSN's learning curve to Mont Ventoux proportions. Now there was nowhere to hide - and it was often excruciating to watch.

In Wiggins's early interviews with Sky, his body language was akin to someone caught walking out of an adult video store by a close relative. You could virtually see Brad's mind drift off to the healthier climes of Jonathan Vaughter's Argyle pants and Dave Zabriskie's lamb chop sideburns.

It must have taken the rebellious Mod all the patience in the world not to rip off the microphone and stomp away muttering something along the lines of, 'me, the David Beckham of cycling, you're having a laugh?!'.

Given Team Sky's paltry return in year one, the SSN presenters admittedly suffered from a distinct lack of opportunity to familiarise themselves with having to describe anything remotely good. As formidable a spinning machine it is, even Sky Sports falls short at magicking a 24th place into something even bordering on the positive.

Another year on, all that has changed. Wiggins may have collared his chances in France, but his courageous ride in the Vuelta alongside Chris Froome's unexpected rise to the top meant a double Vuelta podium to celebrate at the end of a season peppered with victories.

And still it would get better: the much-anticipated arrival of Mark Cavendish, the Tour green jersey and new world champion, meant that all the pieces of the puzzle were finally put in place for a SSN overload: at last they had direct access to the Manchester United of bike racing.

With two years in the bag - during which presenters slowly learned that anything outside the top three in a stage race just wasn't worth reporting (especially if it happened in Langkawi) - SSN finally seems to have found its footing.

A case in point: this week's special focus on Mark Cavendish. In less than 20 minutes of coverage and interviews, Sky managed to succeed where so many media organisations have failed: they painted Cav in a unanimously favourable light.

After watching the interview, Saddles will be hard pressed to say anything negative about the Manxman for the rest of his life. Cav could be caught with a suitcase full of needles and he'd still come out smelling of roses.

Not that such a thing would happen: if the Sky programme did anything, it served to highlight Cav's anger at the media's constant assertion that cycling is a sport tainted by doping.

"People say, 'ooh, there's been a positive test in cycling' - yeah, because they're doing the things to catch them!," he ranted. "Maybe I am being naïve but I don't think so. Since I started riding pro in 2005 I've noticed a difference in the sport. There's not people doing superhuman things like Riccardo Ricco did anymore."

There are, however, people extricating themselves from barbed wire fences after being run down by cars - superhuman in Saddles' eyes - but that's beside the point. As Cavendish stressed, the suffering in the peloton is more evident nowadays and no one looks "fresh as a daisy" (a la Ricco) after a gruelling stage like they did in darker days.

"It's so frustrating," Cav said in the most stirring moment of the interview, "I ride 50,000 kilometres a year - and less than half of that is racing. It's so much effort and I hate it when everyone says we're all doping."

But the interview was far from simply a rally cry against doping. Cavendish also showed his human side in his interaction with girlfriend Peta Todd (they are clearly besotted) and his infallible side when talking about his stature (he claims to stand 5'9" which is surely two inches too generous).

In one endearingly naïve moment, Cav even went as far as to suggest that his weirdness - which basically seems to consist of him being in 'the zone' and experiencing everything in slow motion - bordered on autism. "It's like being in a film," he said before expanding further: "It's almost Rain Man-ish."

A little aside from the narrator - disclosing that Todd fell pregnant during last summer's Tour - also dispelled the notion that Cav was firing blanks for the first four days in July.

Besides Cav's anti-doping stance, the 26-year-old speedster also went lengths to underline his patriotism and pride ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

"We're not that good at a lot of stuff in Britain, so when we are good, everybody buys into it, watches it, supports it," said the man who recently picked up an MBE from the Queen (asking Her Majesty to watch from her front window when the Olympic road race passes by Buckingham Palace next summer).

Of course, the whole patriotism card played right into the hands of Sky as a sponsor - for it is Sky that is the face of what has essentially become the national cycling team.

"It's like following a football team," Cav said. And when the national football team is as bad as England's, then it's a breath of fresh air to have another bunch of sportsmen to get behind.

Because these are exceedingly exciting days for British cycling. Having a Grand Tour contender and the world's best sprinter on the same team in an Olympic year on home soil is as good as it gets. Team Sky may be juggling with too many eggs - but the very fact that a cycling team (and a British one at that) shows such ambition is an incredible boon for the sport.

Forget all the hoo-ha about there not being enough women representatives in the shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award; it would be an absolute travesty is Cavendish does not win. And if things go according to plan, a cyclist could well win SPOTY in 2012 as well.

"We'll have a TV show," Cavendish joked when asked about Team Sky's potential achievements this coming season. "Watch this space. It won't be called the Brad & Mark Show, it will be the Mark & Brad Show. If I didn't think it was possible for two British riders to win the yellow and green jerseys next year, I wouldn't be on Team Sky."

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