You don’t have to be a cycling fan to appreciate 2011 Sports Personality of the Year Mark Cavendish – the guy is one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes.

It was moving to hear the 26-year-old make his emotional and humble thank you speech on accepting the coveted award and the public’s long overdue recognition.

Cavendish, only the third cyclist to win after Tommy Simpson in 1965 and Sir Chris Hoy in 2008, said: “This is a landmark for cycling. For cycling to be recognised in a non-Olympic year is unheard of.”

The Manxman won five stages of this year’s Tour de France – including the final time trial in Paris – to clinch the green jersey awarded to the race’s best sprinter for the first time.

He followed that success by confirming Britain’s emergence as a major nation in road as well as track cycling by taking gold at the World Championships in Copenhagen in September.

“I am absolutely speechless, some of my team-mates here will say that is a rare thing” said a clearly elated Cavendish.

“I had a group of guys who rode in Copenhagen who brought the rainbow jersey back to Britain after nearly half a century and that is a massive thing. Even to be nominated in the top 10 is an incredible thing.

“That we can produce champions from such a small place is superb. Now I see so many people out riding bikes, commuting to work or doing it as a hobby, they can see what it’s like to ride.”

And that is the rub. Just like British rowing enjoyed unprecedented success when Sir Steven Redgrave – winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award –  was named Sports Personality of the Year in 2000, this could be the breakthrough moment for the sport of cycling.