Mark Cavendish rode onto the iconic Roubaix velodrome for the first time in his life on Thursday afternoon as he prepares to ride Paris-Roubaix for only the second time in his illustrious career. He got a feel for the gradient of the track and saw the legendary finish line that has seen so many greats of the sport win the Hell of the North. Yet he knows he is unlikely sprint for victory or even a placing in the final results this year.
Cavendish has won more than 135 races during the last decade but will not be the Dimension Data team leader for Paris-Roubaix; he is riding in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen. As payback he will get a chance to test his ability in the sport's most punishing Classic, in a moment of freedom and pure racing.
After years of bring an important sprinter, always obliged to sit on the wheels and wait for the finish, Cavendish will have a chance to shake of the sprinter's shackles, show his natural racing talents and intuition, just as he does annually at the British national road race championship every June. This freedom to race is one of the reasons why the Manxman opted to join Dimension Data.
"This is the first time I've seen the velodrome, I've never seen it in person. It was nice to ride on it," Cavendish told a small group of media, including Cyclingnews, who had followed the Dimension Data team during their reconnaissance ride all he way to the Roubaix velodrome.
I've only ridden it once before and didn't finish. I'm really excited to ride again this year. We've got a really strong Dimension Data team here. Edvald has a good shot at victory and we've got an experienced group of guys to help him."
Cavendish has proven his ability on the cobbles in lots of other spring Classics but riding the long section of pave during the Paris-Roubaix reconnaissance ride seemed to be a bit of an eye opener.
"I always ride well on the cobbles. I'm not Fabian Cancellara but I can ride cobbles," he insisted with pride. "It was windy out there during our ride. There were a lot of sections with cross winds and so if you ride on the crest of the road, it makes it quite difficult to hold the wheel. I suppose it's the same for everyone though."
Dimension Data Head of Performance Rolf Aldag believes Cavendish has several key bike attributes that will help him Sunday and perhaps even surprise people with the contribution he can give to the team and with his own performance.
"He's technically good on the bike – that helps. He's good at positioning – that helps. He has a good understanding for bike set up – that helps. That makes it a lot easier for him than other guys," Aldag told Cyclingnews.
Can he win it? Maybe and probably not this year but who knows? It's a process. I'm not aware that anyone in history has turned up at Paris-Roubaix and won it. That's happened in Milan-San Remo – Mark did it – but Roubaix is definitely a race to learn about first. To do well you have to like it and be dialed into it. That's what we already know from Mark - he was planning for years and years and years to ride Roubaix but it wouldn't really fit with team strategies but he was always hoping to ride it. Now he's got a chance."
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Back with Boasson Hagen
Cavendish first rode Paris-Roubaix in 2011 when he was part of the HTC-High road team, along with eventual 2015 Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb, Tony Martin, Tejay van Garderen, Matt Goss and current teammates Matt Brammeier ad Bernhard Eisel. That season Cavendish rode a full Classics season, including Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs – which he won for a third time and Paris-Roubaix.
"I can remember that in 2011, (then HTC directeur sportif) Allan Peiper made me sit up and wait for Matt Goss," Cavendish recalled with disdain. "But Gossy had already let the others carry on. So we pulled out at the feed zone."
"It'd be nice to finish this time but only after doing my job for the team. I'm not going to sacrifice my work for the team so that I can finish," he reiterated.
Cavendish seems happy to have re-found some of the teammates from the years he was at his very best and winning sprints and stages at the Tour de France with ease. Boasson Hagen is one of them. They raced together at Team Colombia in 2008 and 2009. While the two are like chalk and cheese, they get on and race well together, as they proved at the Tour of Qatar in February when Cavendish won overall after winning a stage and doing everything he could to help Boasson Hagen win.
"He's really grown and matured," Cavendish pointed out about the now 28 year-old Norwegian. His physically ability was always there but he's developed as a leader. It's been interesting to see now were back together in the same team. He can be a real contender on Sunday and that's why I'm happy to play my part and help him."