As part of our build-up to the 2014 Tour de France, reporter Alex Johnston talks to Mark Cavendish’s uncle from Harrogate about the athlete’s visits
Sports Personality of the Year, MBE, winner of 23 stages of the Tour de France and, this week winner of the Tour of Qatar, Mark Cavendish is one of British cycling’s biggest success stories.
His name was among the first on everybody’s lips in North Yorkshire last month when it was announced the region would host the opening stages of the 2014 Tour de France.
Mark Cavendish is a proud Manxman. Born and brought up on the Isle of Man, Harrogate cannot lay claim to forming his success.
But Mark’s uncle Russell Davidson, who lives in Harrogate, has fond memories of the cyclist frequenting the town as a youth. Upon speaking to Russell it becomes clear that the road leading to the birth of this iconic athlete is deeply entrenched in sadness and joy, and a family whose roots are buried deep within Harrogate.
The story begins in World War Two, and the enterprising Krebs family, who ran two businesses in the town.
Russell explained: “My great aunt Sarah was married to Henry Krebs. They ran two businesses in Harrogate, the first of which was Henry Krebs tailors and furriers, on Oxford Street. It was roughly where Primark stands now.
“The second business was a bridal house which at one time employed over 100 people.
“It was the shop people in Yorkshire came to for wedding dresses, and the manufacturing part of the business was run from Royal House on Station Parade.”
Unfortunately, the remaining mark of the Krebs family in modern-day Harrogate is the inscription of family names on the town’s cenotaph.
Their son Emmanuel Krebs was killed as he served on minesweeper HMS Almond in 1941, when the ship sank as it entered Falmouth Bay.
His name sits beside that of Gerald Nathan, the Krebs’ nephew, who perished on the Bangkok to Burma railway during the conflict.
The family were to suffer further when the war was over, as their other son Roy died following his duties as a Bevin Boy.
Although the couple continued to successfully run their business in Harrogate, tax pressures became too much to bear, and they moved to start a new life on the Isle of Man in the 1960s.
The great aunt had a profound influence on the childhood of both Russell and his sister Adele, who were both born and brought up in Harrogate.
It was Sarah who invited the young siblings to visit the Isle of Man as children.
On one such visit, Adele was to meet her future husband David Cavendish and, many years later, give birth to Mark.
Such visits were arranged by Russell and Adele’s parents, Mark’s grandparents, who enjoyed happy times in Harrogate.
Mark’s grandmother Audrey Nathan was crowned first Floral Queen of the town in September 1950, an accolade awarded to the prettiest young girl in the town at the time, and a cause of real pride in the family.
It may even have led to Audrey meeting Mark’s late grandfather Joe Davidson, a driving instructor.
Russell remembers the early visits to the Isle of Man fondly. He said: “Adele and I used to go and stay with Sarah on the Isle of Man as children.
“She lived to be 100, and held Mark as a baby.
“Adele met David Cavendish on the Isle of Man, married him and settled there. When my grandfather Joe died, my mother moved there to be closer to my sister.”
The seeds of future success for the cyclist had been sown.
Mark was born in 1985, and his brother Andrew in 1987.
The siblings both got involved in cycling when their mother entered them into an athletics club on the isle.
Russell said: “They both got into cycling in a big way. Andrew was under-14 champion of the south west at one point. Unfortunately he didn’t stick with the sport, but Mark did, and he only really got into it because his younger brother had!
“Mark decided to make it his career, and we were all rather surprised because for our family it was a really unconventional choice.
“Sarah told him: ‘What a way to earn a living, going as fast as you can on a bike! Can’t you do something normal like being an accountant?’”
Russell worked in London for 11 years, but now lives in Harrogate and is chairman of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust and on the board of Harrogate Theatre.
He met his wife Jacqui in the capital, and, when the couple married in 1988, Mark was chosen as a pageboy.
Just as Russell and Adele would visit the Isle of Man as children, so Mark and Andrew regularly made the trip to Harrogate to see their uncle and auntie.
Russell recollected: “Mark and his brother were frequent visitors to Harrogate when they were young.
“I remember they were a nightmare in cafés!
“He must have been aged just three when he was our pageboy.
“When we were taking our vows, Mark was holding the ring, rather than my best man.
“He was standing behind us and before the vows had finished, he shot forward to offer the vicar the ring.
“He always had to be first past the finishing line!”
Russell has followed the rise of Mark’s career with pride, and always knew it would have an effect on the sort of person Mark became.
He said: “Mark’s a very down-to-earth lad at heart and the fame and earnings haven’t gone to his head.
“It is not until you have someone like that in your family that you realise the sheer unrelenting work that goes into reaching the level he is at. “He is on his bike rain or shine, and what I have realised is you take the person for granted. “My mother, his grandmother, is so proud. She says to him: ‘You may be a sporting superstar, but you’re just a lad to me!’”.
Now, Russell feels the circle is complete, as he expects his mother Audrey and sister Adele to make the trip to Harrogate to watch Mark take part in le Tour next year.
They rarely watch his races for fear of seeing him get hurt, but Russell knows the emotion of having the event in a town so close to the family’s heart has them captivated.
He said: “I don’t know if everybody knows yet, this will be the biggest event ever to happen in Harrogate! “There will be one million people lining the route.
“The world’s media will be here, and it isn’t just about the cycling, but the carnivals and funfairs and the entertainment that goes with it. It is a huge family event.”
And the man himself? It appears likely Mark will feature in the sprint finish planned for the Stray on July 5 next year.
Russell shared with me Mark’s instant reaction over text message to January’s announcement.
“It looks like I’ll have to take the jumper in my family’s home town”, read the first, followed by an endorsement of just how seismic this event will be: “It is great. Really great, Wait until you see the crowds!”