Settled, relaxed and hungry are three words that should have Mark Cavendish’s rivals trembling on their top tubes as they head into a new season on the road. Now in his second year with Omega Pharma-QuickStep and with twenty wins under his belt last season, the British rider believes he is not just as fast as ever but also lucky to have what he describes as the best support a sprinter could dream of.
A backroom staff that includes Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag, has been bolstered by the signing of his friend and former leadout man Mark Renshaw and has helped solidify an already winning formula that was first discovered and finessed at HTC.
The similarities between HTC and Omega are easy to draw. Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and a number of other staff have served on both teams, while the return of the prodigal leadout man Renshaw is arguably one of the signings of the winter. However the greatest similarity is perhaps the way in which Cavendish defines both teams. At Highroad Cavendish was king, and while there were undoubtedly other talented riders on the team’s books, when it came to delivery of success in the biggest races, Cavendish was the team’s crown jewel.
At Sky the plot understandably changed, with the hunt for the maillot jaune becoming the team’s singular focus. Yet now, in his second season at Omega, Cavendish appears settled and more relaxed, maybe not about his ambitions which remain as high as ever, but regarding the perceived atmosphere within the squad. It’s not a carbon copy of High Road but there are elements the team are striving to replicate.
“I’m in the best position here. I’m incredibly lucky that the team has put the financial commitment into signing me and secondly putting the confidence in to sign, for me, the two best leadout men in Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw. I can sit here and definitely say that I’m the luckiest sprinter in professional cycling.”
Petacchi joined mid-way through 2013, initially quitting Lampre due to a lack of motivation before Patrick Lefevere signed him on an 18 month deal. Renshaw’s arrival could be seen as the completion of the puzzle and the cherry on the cake in terms of leadouts.
“I’m super excited and now he’s back from being Lars Boom’s leadout man,” Cavendish said in reference to Renshaw’s time at Rabobank and Belkin.
“It makes me incredibly happy. He’s a great guy, a great friend of mine and we had a lot of successful times. I’m looking forward to a successful year.”
Cavendish has yet to genuinely have a poor year but he is judged more for the races that he loses rather than the ones that he wins, with the perplexing dynamic reaching fever pitch last year when two stage wins during a health hit Tour were seen as scant successes.
Compared to previous hauls it was lower than the public and Cavendish, privately at least, would have expected but it still formed part of a season that included five stages at the Giro d’Italia and the red jersey, a feat that puts the Manxman in a formidable bracket of riders that have won the points jerseys in every grand tour. Spare a through for the fact that Sagan, Kittel and Greipel have won three points jerseys between them and the records looks even more impressive.
Yet Kittel’s impressive haul of four stages in last year’s Tour de France has brought him into the ranks of world class sprinting. One race did not all of a sudden usher in that transformation, but the German’s consistency and finishing speed was Cavendish-esque in 2013 and has led to the inevitable question over who is fastest.
There were some doubts in Cavendish’s mind as to that answer during 2013, as there would be for any athlete challenged by a younger and successful competitor but in Calpe the Omega rider gave a slightly deflective answer when Kittel’s name was raised.
“I’m really happy. I won five stages at the Giro d’Italia last year, the red jersey, I won twenty races, from every month from January until September, apart from in April when I took a break. I was joining a new team but we had a leadout train dialled in within seven months and that’s pretty phenomenal, as it normally takes three years to do that. Then to finish that off there at the Tour of Britain to win three stages, I was super happy with my year. It was successful for me and the team. We won one out of every five stages at the Tour and people tend to forget that. For me Omega Pharma QuickStep is super strong and the best place for me. I’m looking forward to 2014.”
Whether Cavendish can remain on top of his game in 2014 is one of the biggest questions heading into the campaign. The foundations look solid, more so than at any time since 2010. Yet nothing is certain within sport, let alone in the split-second decision making world of sprinting. The sport and the competition has evolved and changed. Cavendish’s rivals from his breakthrough Tour in 2008 have either retired or slowed dramatically and there are more sprint trains on the scene.
“The guys I’m sprinting against are big strong guys,” he says.
“I’m really the only one left at being successful from the fast guys. Everyone is now big and strong, bikes are more aerodynamic, people are wearing skinsuits and we’re going at higher top speeds. I’ve worked at being stronger and I’ve been in the gym for really the first time in my life, and doing weights.”
The Tour will once again be Cavendish’s main focus. Milan-San Remo might as well finish on the Stelvio given the race’s terrain changes and suitability for sprinters but July is where judgement on success inevitably hinges.
“We want to be successful in the Classics with Tom, successful in all the smaller races that we’ve done well in before, and then the reason I’ve been brought to the team is to win stages in the grand tours. We want success throughout the year, and as much as possible.”
Some of that success may come from new signing Rigoberto Urán. The Colombian was brought in to help the team’s general classification ambitions in major tours and after a runner-up spot in the Giro last year, looks set to compete for the maglia rosa once again this year.
Both Cavendish and Uran rode together at Sky for the 2012 season and although Cavendish was not glowing in praise of his teammate’s ride at the Giro that year, he now believes that the two can ride together, no questions asked, if goal is to succeed for the good of the team.
“I rode with Rigoberto at Sky and he’s a great guy. He’s fitted in well and we’ll see. He was second in the Giro and he’s showed he can ride well in the tours and in the Ardennes, which we’ve missed out on in the last couple of years.”
Asked if Uran’s arrival will change the line up at the Tour or any other major stage race, Cavendish batted back the question before reminding the attending press of the team’s strength in depth. “I don’t know what’s happening and I’m not a sports director. All I know is that I can go in be in my best condition for July. We’re in the fortunate position that we enough guys to go into the Tour de France with so many combinations of riders that can be successful. I think that’s a luxury position to be in.”