Sport and development manager Rolf Aldag described it as a year for Mark Cavendish to settle some open accounts, and the Manxman certainly cut the air of a man eager to get down to business when he met the press at the Etixx-QuickStep training camp in Calpe on Thursday afternoon.
Ill fortune limited Cavendish to ten victories in 2014 – a decent haul by almost anyone’s standards but his own, perhaps – and it also prevented him from contending on the grandest platform of all, the Tour de France.
Little wonder, then, that he has both short-term and long-term yields in mind in 2015. Like all fastmen, Cavendish simply wants to win early and often, but two major appointments are already highlighted in the ledger – Milan-San Remo and the Tour.
“I’d like to win as much as possible and I’d like to win Milan-San Remo,” Cavendish said. “It’s obviously difficult to do – it’s a Monument and there are a lot of other guys who would like to win it – but we’ll make that the big goal for the beginning of the year, and then there’s the Tour de France.”
Cavendish famously won Milan-San Remo at the first attempt in 2009 but La Classicissima is the most fickle of races, open to myriad interpretations. There have been years since – 2013 springs to mind, for instance – where he has lined up in equivalent form, only for circumstances to put the race beyond his grasp.
Indeed, this time last year, Milan-San Remo wasn’t on his programme at all due to its revamped finale only for the late removal of the Pompeiana to alter his plans in early March. Those circumstances offered mitigation for his 5th place finish in the eventual bunch sprint, though deep down Cavendish must have been disappointed to see such an opportunity go to waste.
2015 sees a further change in the parcours, but unlike last year’s planned alteration, it’s one that will hardly discommode the sprinters. The Pompeiana is once again deemed unpassable and Le Manie, where his hopes ended in 2011 and 2012, is also off the menu, though RCS Sport have moved the finish back to its traditional spot on the Via Roma. In theory, this closer proximity to the Poggio gives the escapees a better chance of holding off the sprinters, but given his appreciation for the history of the sport, it’s hardly surprising that Cavendish is enthusiastic about this “new” course.
“I really like it,” he said. “It’s the race that I grew up watching, the race I grew up dreaming of so to be able to race it and try for the win will be a big thing.”
Cavendish’s build-up to Milan-San Remo will take him to Argentina for the Tour de San Luis, then to the Dubai Tour, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Tirreno-Adriatico, but his plans for the remainder of the season are yet to be decided. “Obviously I want to do the Tour but between San Remo and the Tour we don’t know yet,” he said.
Tour de France
In his first two seasons at QuickStep, Cavendish travelled to the Tour with a team built solely around his sprint ambitions but manager Patrick Lefevere has intimated that this time around the squad will line up in July with a more varied approach.
Rigoberto Uran is pencilled in to lead the squad’s general classification challenge, and Cavendish refused to be drawn on whether the Colombian’s presence might prove detrimental to his sprint train, as had been the case when he lined up on Bradley Wiggins’ Tour-winning Sky team in 2012.
“You’d have to speak to the directors,” he said quietly. “I’ve only spoken about the beginning of the year.”
Cavendish was succinct, too, when asked if he would miss Alessandro Petacchi from his lead-out train – “I don’t know, we haven’t tried the new lead-out yet” – although he lauded the arrival of Fabio Sabatini from Cannondale as a significant addition.
“He’s never won a professional race but he’s been part of so many winning teams. He’s got no personal ambition other than to do the best he possibly can for the team, which is a great attribute to have. He’s a loyal guy on and off the bike. He’s a good friend and for years I’ve wanted him in the team.”
For the past two Julys, Marcel Kittel has taken over the mantle as the top sprinter at the Tour, winning eight stages in total. Asked to compare how bunch sprinting had changed from his early Tours to the current era against Kittel, Greipel et al, Cavendish limited himself to observing flatly that “there’s more lead-outs, that’s about it,” and he downplayed the notion that he was in need of revenge in 2015 after last year's abortive Tour.
“Not really, I’ve won 25 stages there,” he said, adding that he was loath to place a number on what would constitute a successful haul of stage victories in 2015. “One stage of the Tour for a rider makes his career so one stage per year is quite hard to do. So it’s a big thing to win one stage of the Tour de France. You’ve got to give the Tour de France the respect it deserves.”
Perhaps tellingly, Cavendish was more effusive when asked about his first race of the year, the Tour de San Luis, and he explained his rational for returning to Argentina for the third successive January. Outings on the track in Ghent and Zurich already shortened the winter but the Manxman appeared keen to begin his road campaign in earnest and in relative tranquillity.
“It’s quite relaxed down there and it’s a nice organised race. There’s a good selection of sprints and hilly days and it’s good weather,” he said. “We’re very, very short on preparation races on the calendar nowadays and Argentina for me provides the best preparation race at the beginning of the year.”
A further attempt to have Cavendish entertain the prospect of a season of high-profile duels with Kittel, meanwhile, was firmly batted away. “I just concentrate on trying to win bike races, like I always have,” he said. “I won’t concentrate on other riders, I’ll concentrate on the finish line and crossing that first.”
From San Luis to the Champs-Élysées, by way of the Via Roma, the bottom line of the sprint business remains the same.