Friday 3 November 2023

On demand: "Mark Cavendish: Never Enough"

For newcomers: Mark Cavendish is the Manx-born cycling personality who's spent the past few years sitting equal with the legendary Eddy Merckx atop the list of most individual stage victories at the Tour de France. I make the distinction personality because - in the largely bland, carefully stagemanaged arena of professional sport - that's what Cavendish is. A sprinter by specialty, winning his stages by being faster over the final 500m than anybody else in the peloton, he seems unlikely to sit still long enough for any media training to be imparted and absorbed; his post-race interviews, accordingly, are their own unpredictable joy, full of impulsive rhetorical darts and sudden gear changes apparently ported across from the track. Few professional cyclists have given such indication of riding chiefly for the love of it: you sense he'd be pedalling whether or not the world's greatest bike race was labouring through the Pyrenees. All this makes Cavendish a strong candidate for the regulation feature-length documentary profile, and
Mark Cavendish: Never Enough - steered onto Netflix earlier this year, and often resembling a spin-off from the streaming giant's recent, excellent Tour de France: Unchained series - gives us the essentials in its opening montage: the propulsion and the achievement, the resilience required to pick yourself up after crashing at a full pelt 70km/h, the casual scattering of F-bombs in a live TV setting. Yet despite his still-boyish demeanour, Mark Cavendish is getting older and more vulnerable. Alex Kiehl's film covers a period in which the cyclist was diagnosed with the debilitating Epstein-Barr Syndrome, suffered a horrific crash at the annual Milan-San Remo event (you and I would have sold the bicycle for scrap thereafter) and underwent bouts of both depression and extreme weight loss as he attempted to get back up to speed. His only semi-inevitable comeback was hampered by the fact he's now competing with younger, hungrier men - exactly the sort of devil-may-care sprinter he was once himself, velocity unsaddled by baggage.

As with Netflix's David Beckham series, Never Enough is palpably authorised viewing, the kind of project established sports stars can afford to sign off on once their legacy has been assured. The pitch, presumably, was Cav puts it all - the professional and the personal - on the record. What's interesting is that he puts enough out there to reveal a somewhat chippy character, at least in his younger, more bullish days. I suspect selective editing on Kiehl's part - and possibly representative overdubbing - but one instance of Cavendish being snarlingly rude to the great Ned Boulting during a press conference would be unforgivable in any other context. (But then, maybe cancellation doesn't work the same way in cycling: no point telling a miscreant to get on their bike when that's just what they want to do.) One reason Cavendish became such a fan favourite, of course, was precisely this lack of filter, the total refusal of bullshit or mystique. (You might presume he was just like you, if you could pedal over that hill in town without suffering partial respiratory failure.) It's clear from the film that the more competitive - more macho? - side of his personality felt he had to be an arsehole of some sort to win; it's also glaringly apparent that, as he sank deeper into rest and recovery mode, that aggression turned inwards. Watching entire seasons go by from the sofa, removed of rivals to rocket past, Cavendish began beating himself up - and that's where Kiehl's film, to its considerable dramatic benefit, finds him.

The bulk of Never Enough is an interview Kiehl conducts with Cavendish in a muted mock-up of a locker room that externalises the fugged-up interior of an ailing sportsman's head; here, Kiehl finds his subject trying to figure out why it is he no longer has the legs ("What the fuck is wrong with me?") One chapter on Cavendish's arsiness around his wife, the erstwhile glamour model Peta Todd, brings us unexpectedly close to knowing what it's like living with a champion who senses he's falling back among the bunch, and may eventually be destined for the broom wagons. That titular life motto turns out to be a recipe both for victory (restlessness, constant gains, no complacency, yadda yadda) and misery (eternal unhappiness with one's lot). Kiehl suggests the most important work Cavendish did during his enforced downtime wasn't on his body - healing in its own time - but on his mindset; as a result, the film usefully fills the gap separating the intense Cav of the early 2010s from the vastly more chill figure who's returned to racing in recent years. It's an odd choice to have non-fan fave Lance Armstrong - a podcast bro nowadays, apparently - provide so much of the onscreen commentary, and the action stops short of the 2021 robbery of Cavendish's home and the events of last year's Tour de France. (A follow-up may be in the works: with Cavendish, there's always something.) Yet the completed film amply demonstrates the revivifying effect of sports psychology on the documentary form - how having the language for these kinds of discussions has enabled filmmakers to push beyond banal win-loss data and go properly deep. Yes, Cavendish's speed is recorded, and remains a source of astonishment, yet Kiehl's film also recognises that sometimes sport is a means to better understanding yourself, perhaps even the person you've spent the past few decades trying so frantically to outsprint.

Mark Cavendish: Never Enough is now streaming on Netflix.

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