Mark Cavendish has never known a Milan-San Remo build-up quite like this one. Right back to his much-anticipated (and victorious) debut in 2009, the Manxman has been at the centre of attention in the weeks leading up to La Classicissima but this time around, he has been able to fly largely under the radar.
The reason? Ever since joining Omega Pharma-QuickStep at the beginning of the season, Cavendish has told anyone who will listen that Milan-San Remo is no longer a major goal, explaining that the evolution of the race in the years since the climb of Le Manie was introduced in 2008 means that the odds are now stacked against the pure sprinters.
“It’s not a goal for me this year. I’ll ride it in the hope of winning but not necessarily planning on winning,” Cavendish told reporters in Cinisello Balsamo, just north of Milan, on Friday evening. “We’ve got a strong team here, we’ve got lots and lots of different options which is really good, and that’s given me the most relaxed week I’ve had between Tirreno and San Remo.”
Given the strength of his team and his insistence in 2009 that he was at Milan-San Remo purely for experience, few are willing to completely write off Cavendish’s chances, but his repeated declarations over the opening weeks of the season have certainly lifted the usual weight of expectation that has traditionally surrounded him.
As world champion at Sky, Cavendish’s every move was scrutinised in the run-in to Milan-San Remo last year. That came on the back of being the figurehead for the British team’s “Project Rainbow” at the Copenhagen Worlds in 2011 and ahead of the unsuccessful tilt at gold in the Olympic road race last year, and Cavendish has perhaps – quite understandably – had his fill of external fanfare ahead of major events.
“There’s always been a pressure put on by myself: I’ve always put this as my first goal of the year and demanded the team be built around me and things haven’t paid off,” he said of Milan-San Remo. “This year’s completely different. I was obviously asked if I wanted to target it and I said that I didn’t want to target this. So the pressure just on myself has been a lot less.”
In theory, the rain forecast for Sunday should make for an even more selective race and stack the deck further against Cavendish and the sprinters, even if he was reluctant to place too much emphasis on the weather. “I don’t like it but it’s the same for everyone,” he said. “It’s not just me doing 300 kilometres in the rain, it’s 200 riders and it’s the same for everyone I think.”
Whatever about the meteorological conditions on Sunday, Cavendish will be more concerned about the pace on the crucial climb of Le Manie, and he is well aware that one fast finisher seems capable of winning regardless of how the race unfolds. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is the bookmakers’ favourite for victory, and Cavendish acknowledged the young Slovak’s status as such.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to beat Sagan, he’s the clear favourite. He won a sprint in Tirreno, he won from a small group with climbing specialists and Cannondale as a team were riding very, very strong there,” Cavendish said. “Sagan got close last year and I really believe that barring accidents, it’s going to take a miracle to beat him this year really.”
Cavendish saw Sagan’s speed first hand at Tirreno-Adriatico, losing out to the 23-year-old in the rain-soaked bunch finish at Narni Scalo, although he bristled when a television crew later asked him how it had felt to be passed by Sagan and quietly pointed out that he had started his sprint from further back and had not suffered the indignity of being overtaken. “What do you mean pass me?” Cavendish asked. “Did you watch it? I was behind him.”
Nonetheless, Cavendish couldn’t help but smile when asked to weigh in on Fabian Cancellara’s belief that Sagan’s expressive victory salutes are disrespectful to his fellow professionals. With an extensive back catalogue of celebrations of his own, Cavendish can understand Sagan’s exuberance.
“Couldn’t give a shit,” Cavendish grinned. “He can do what he wants. He’s won a bike race, you know, it’s an emotional time. And he’s clearly a once in a generation bike rider, so he can do what he wants. He’s still young.”