November saw Mark Cavendish taking to the track in top form in Ghent and Zurich, but he wasn’t the only member of the Cavendish household on unfamiliar sporting terrain, as wife Peta took on the challenge of Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship.

A familiar face at the Friends Life Tour of Britain, alongside husband Mark, the record stage winner in the modern event, Peta was rallying in the Welsh forest in support of Help for Heroes, for whom she is an ambassador.  Brendan Gallagher caught up with her post event to hear her experiences, markedly different from standing roadside cheering on Mark.

PETA TODD – aka Mrs Mark Cavendish – has spent so long looking on anxiously while the other half crashed to earth in horrific looking pile ups that it was an interesting experience recently when she experienced a nasty prang herself while co-driving with Tony Jardine at the legendary Wales Rally GB, the final round of the year long World Rally Championship.  Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

Todd – who has cycled, run marathons and climbed Kilimanjaro for the Help for Heroes charity – is rarely one to resist a challenge but qualifying for an international co-drivers licence and racing just seven weeks after major surgery was pushing it even by her standards. 

The process – which involves exams and gaining your national licence and completing a minimum of three races first – normally takes the best part of two years and the timing wasn't ideal after an operation for a collapsed lung. That surgery resulted in long recent scars between her shoulder blades and in her rib cage but such opportunities don't come around very often and egged on by a slightly jealous husband she accepted. 

On her first outing, three weeks after she went under the knife, she couldn't even open the passengers door or strap in the seatbelt without help as her intercostal muscles healed but thankfully the situation improved quickly and she was able to line up at the final leg of the World Rally Championship on November 16 for the three day event in North Wales [incidentally which finished in Llandundo, the same Conwy town where Cavendish's Omega Pharma Quick-Step teammate Mark Renshaw won Stage Two of the Friends Life Tour of Britain this September].

Which is when the fun started. Early on the first day Jardine – former F1 team manager and now a Sky pundit – by his own admission slightly over cooked a bend slightly and made contact with a big pile of logs.  Both driver and co-driver were shaken and initially the car appeared beyond repair although miraculously they eventually re-joined the race the following morning, more of which anon.

“It's true, I these things seem to happen in slow motion,” recalls Peta. “We had been going very well. Tony seemed to have developed confidence in my calls and was really pushing it and then we went into this corner and there was quite a significant pile of logs on the inside. On the left hand side was biggish drop off to the side so it was a bit fraught.

“I had made the call, sharp right, logs on the inside and Tony went in just a bit fast and clipped the logs as he tried to rectify it at the last minute. From my co-drivers seat I saw it coming, I knew it was about to happen and braced myself.

“It wasn't nice but objectively I'm quite good in a panic situations, I don't know whether it comes from being a mum or what but I have got the ability to be calm and matter of fact about everything. I said to Tony we need to get out of the car and we needed to do it quickly because the other cars are set at one minute intervals and we had ended up right in the middle of the road. We were a hazard. His drivers’ door was too badly damaged to get out so he had to climb across via the passenger’s seat which is no easy thing in a rally car with its roll bars and stuff.

“And it was then the special role of the rally spectators kicked in, they are a great bunch.  You have two boards in your car – one says OK, one says SOS. If you have crashed but you are unhurt and there is no major problem one of the spectators will quickly take your 'OK' board and go up the road a bit and hold it up as prominently as possible for the next car to clock and reduce their speed. They will then know they won't have to stop. If you hold the 'SOS' sign the next car will stop and try and assist.

“A few cars came through and then in a brief break all the spectators just calmly helped to push our car out of harms way.  It didn't look great, the whole wheel was buckled underneath itself, huge damage to the chassis, oil everywhere. To be honest though the most terrifying bit was standing by the road those few mintues. Its only when you step outside the car – out of the bubble so to speak – that you realise how quick they are going and how close they cut it.

“Mark was away in Belgium that week getting ready for the Ghent Six so it was quite a role reversal I suppose. Initially I didn’t have any phone coverage in the forest but some spectators took pictures and it was all out there on Twitter in no time so I knew I had to try and get in touch as soon as possible. When he has a crash, even if I see him get up and ride over the line and somebody phones from the team phones or texts to say he is ok I won’t rest easy until I’ve heard that from his own mouth.  

“Eventually I got him and just told him I was ok and didn't make anything of it because so close after the operation he would have worried. We had talked it all through before I accepted the challenge so he was happy with the decision to race, we had assessed the risk, but I didn’t think it was the time to spell out exactly what had happened! I also had to make sure I got hold of my friend Lauren who was looking after the kids.

“I’ve seen Mark climb back on the bike many times the next day after a bad crash, he is very determined, it's what committed sportsmen do and I've always been a bit like that.  It takes a lot to shake me, I'm quite hardy individual and although both Tony and the owner of the car Raymond were saying that's it, out rally was over. 

“I had already clocked the fact that the ProSpeed mechanics were and incredible bunch and I wasn't prepared to quit without a fight so I started pleading with them a bit. 'Come on guys let’s give this a go, let's see if we can't get back on the road for tomorrow and eventually they agreed. Why not?”

And so began a race within the race. All hope of line honours had gone – they were eventually to finish 47th – but the start line at 7am the next morning now effectively became their finish line, their goal. The car had to pass muster from the scrutineers by 3am the next morning, four hours before their designated start time.
The boys – Ollie, Alec, Jonny and Xav our Irish team photographer – were incredible. I asked them what was the percentage chance they could get us back out and they were saying like ‘5%,10% top whack’.
But they agreed to give it a go and it was an amazing team effort by then. It reminded me quite a bit of the cycling scene when all sorts of things go wrong for the team on the road. Crashes, mechanicals, illness, cross winds, bad luck and yet somehow those who are left contrive to keep the protected rider in the race.
“It was getting late and I was cluttering up the place so they ordered me to get some sleep. If this miracle was to happen they needed a co-driver who was could function. They would text just before 5am if it was game on.

“I really didn’t think it was going to happen. They made it 5 minutes before the 3am deadline and then, after we had got up and were preparing for the state, there was another hitch about 6am when the scrutineers who had initially passed the car had another look and said no.  They suddenly insisted that we needed a new wing, a new bumper and a new headlight. And we only had 15 minutes left to do that. 

“The boys were ready to drop but had to go into overdrive again. Luckily Xav knows everybody and has the gift of the gab and he was off like a flash into the compound scrounging a few parts. He has seen that the support crew for the Citroen team had a few Mitsubishi recce cars so he sprinted across to them and explained the situation and they happily chipped in, there is a great sense of camaraderie in the sport which I really enjoyed. I ached all over, the crash was catching up with me, but against the odds we made the start line.”

Co-driving is a stressful job. You are the driver’s eyes. He needs to know exactly what is coming up – bends, degree of sharpness which is measure on a scale of 1-6 – visibility, camber or not, hazard or not. Then there is the road surface – muddy, rutted,  shale, standing water – and so on. Miss a beat or lose your place and it can quickly go pearshaped. 

“It was all a bit bewildering the first couple of times I did it and the whole process wasn't helped by me suffering from motion sickness which I hadn't really expected. I did wonder for a while how I was going to make this work. The sickness also made me feel claustrophobic and it’s tight enough to start with in those cars.  You are dressed up in your fireproof underwear, racesuit, balaclava, and helmet, intercom  while you are strapped in tight to the seat and by the finish of a stage I just wanted to get everything off as quickly as possible. After being sick that is!

“But I did begin to get used to it. Being so busy helps, you haven't got time for anything else, calling the pace notes. That's an art in itself as you build a rapport with the driver, Tony. You have to stay calm, you have to get it right and you need to control your voice because your intonation is one of the verbal tools to let him know what is coming up.  You need to keep it calm and measured so that when i added extra emphasis Tony could immediately pick up on it. 

“At the start of the process i will admit there were times when we would go through whole sections of a stage where I wouldn’t know exactly where. And knowing roughly where you are is no good at all!  You can not afford to bluff. The worst thing of all would be to call the wrong directions. The only option is to tell the driver “lost lost” so that he knows that he must drive purely on sight from that moment until you regain the exact location. It seems to me being calm when the adrenalin rushing is the main quality needed for a co-driver.”
Given the degree of detail it sounds not dissimilar to the preparation Mark Cavendish and his team would put into preparing for an sprint finish. Fair comment?

“Yes and no. Obviously in the peloton the wind is a big factor which isn't the case in rallying and in the car the course is the only opponent you are not racing directly against other riders fighting for position.

“But in terms of detailed knowledge of the terrain, bends, gradient, surface, fastest lines, bumps, hazards absolutely. Mark and all the sprinters for that matter really study the closing stages of a sprint in some detail. And if they haven't recced the route themselves a member of team will have video the closing stages from a training ride and driven the course ahead of the peloton in the morning to make sure no new hazards have emerged or that there have been any late changes in course.

“In terms of knowing what you are going into, what speed can you carry into which corners and what is going to be safe. It seems very similar to me.

“When I was training Mark was really interested in the pace notes – he couldn't understand them to start with mind because they are in rally drivers short hand but he was impressed with the attention to detail. He is very good at doing his homework and visualising what is coming up and of course he's got that retentive memory that instantly recalls how he has ridden a section in the past if ever he finds himself there again.

“The whole experience was a blast, I'm missing it already event he scary bits.  It's not a sport you can take liberties with but if the opportunity arose to rally at that level again, and the timing was right, I would be very keen. Except this time I would hope to bring some better luck”

Thanks to Xavier McCartan for the Wales Rally GB shots of Peta, Tony and the ProSpeed team in action last month.