Shane Sutton has reiterated that Mark Cavendish will look to medal in the Omnium at the UCI Track World Championships next week in order to help secure a spot on the Great Britain team for the Olympic Games. Sutton had originally made the comments when the home nation announced their roster for the Worlds earlier this month, but at a press event in Manchester on Thursday the sentiment was hammered home by team pursuit coach Heiko Salzwedel.
Salzwedel not only stated that Cavendish needed to reach the podium in the Omnium in order to prove his Olympic credentials, but that the sprinter may need to reconsider his Tour de France ambitions this year. Salzwedel added that Cavendish's aims for 2016 - which combine World and Track roads, the Tour and the Olympic Games could leave the rider spread too thin.
"For Cavendish to be in Rio contention he needs to perform well and I would like to think he will go very close to top three. He will be expecting that himself or he would rule himself out. If he can't run top three in the worlds then I think he would put his hand up and go back and continue his dream via the Tour, get the yellow jersey, win stages and the road worlds," Sutton told a handful of press at the Manchester velodrome.
Cavendish has worked on his track form ever since deciding to aim for the Rio Olympic Games but the path to South America is far from easy. Great Britain have yet to cement an Olympic spot in the Omnium, and Cavendish must appease the national selectors on two counts – firstly that he can hold his own in the Omnium and compete for a medal and secondly that he can deliver in the team pursuit. Five endurance riders can be selected for the team events but the omnium spot must come from that quintet. With Jon Dibben snapping at his heels, and the national selectors unsure of how Cavendish would be after potentially three weeks of racing in the Tour de France, there are a number of high-stake variables in play.
"At this moment in time the event plays into his hands," Sutton added.
"There's been quite a bit of work with Heiko and the sprint team on his flying lap. He's a bit short in individual pursuit but the nature of the event, with the points race, means that anything can happen. He's in very good shape and he's just come out of a good road block. I believe that he can do it and I wouldn't have selected him otherwise. I'm mindful of the fact that we have two or three guys who can step into his shoes if he doesn't come up with the goods."
Prepare to negotiate
Until now the consensus had been that Cavendish could sprint his way to success over a three-week period at the Tour de France before heading to Rio. However, Salzwedel and Sutton both raised their concerns over such a scenario. It looks as though something will have to give in Cavendish's ambitions. Although his trade team have been fully supportive until this point, Sutton admitted that tough conversations between federation, rider, and Brian Smith and Doug Ryder from Dimension Data may be on the horizon.
"I'm not sure how much they're paying him but he keeps telling me that every time he comes in here it costs him a million quid, so he must really want it [the track -ed.]," Sutton joked.
"With Cav it doesn't come down to money. Brian Smith and Doug Ryder have been fantastic and they've backed this entire project. If there was a change in direction then it might get a bit more messy because we probably would want a bit more Cav time."
Such ‘Cav time' would centre around his Omnium weaknesses, and although there are few, every point in the competition counts.
"I'm sure that Brian and Doug would sit down with us because they want what's best for their team as well. They're going to want him at the Tour and we're happy for that because we see that as part of his preparation. One thing I think that works for him if you watch Dubai, Cav comes from a long way back, but he starts to show the speed of old days and I think that's predominantly down to the work on the boards. I think it can only enhance his Tour preparation if he keeps the volume. I'm sure that we can come to a compromise with Brian and Doug on that."
Salzwedel treaded carefully when asked if Cavendish should compete in the Tour de France, and he would not be drawn into a public exchange over whether the rider should take part in specific number of days in the race . However the experienced coach made the point that Cavendish is not targeting the road as he did at the 2012 London Games. Track racing requires a different balance of planning, preparation and training
"I have no influence on the plans of his team and I don't want to interfere but if you ask me directly about doing three weeks at the Tour and then going to the Olympics it might fit for the road race but not for the team pursuit or the Omnium. That's my personal opinion and Cav has to digest and he has to make his own opinion about this."
"He realizes now how difficult it is to win a gold medal on the track. He thought that it would be an easy task but his appearance in Derby last year where he lost to Clancy, and in Hong Kong, where we didn't have such a high class field and also he was struggling. He wasn't in the top physical shape in Hong Kong so he did very impressive rides in the Scratch race and Elimination race by dominating, but he had some flaws in the pursuit and the kilo. That's where we need to spend some time."
Cavendish is certainly no fool. He manages his time – on and off the bike – to meticulous levels of self-scrutiny. This factor will be tested throughout the coming weeks, starting in London at the Worlds, and then running through until July and eventually the Tour de France. The Omnium and its multi-faceted events are just one side to the Olympic team and the team pursuit cannot be ignored.
When considering Cavendish's position in the team pursuit, Salzwedel said: "That's a long way to go because we didn't have time to work on the team pursuit but after the Worlds we'll know if he will continue on this pathway and aim for the Olympics. If he aims for the Olympics then he's automatically one of our men for the team pursuit so we have to work on this too. It requires considerable time here in Manchester and he needs to get his priorities right. We're working on this on a day-to-day basis and that he keeps the right focus without distributing himself to too many things. He has too many things on his mind and he wants to do everything. He wants to win Qatar, he wants to win at the Tour, Gold at the Olympic Games and he wants to have a good spring and Worlds.
"We've had several discussions. Mark knows what he's doing. I'm not talking to a little kid. It's a very difficult task and he knows that he has to prioritise and we'll continue to talk after the World Championships."
Sutton, a man described by Salzwedel as ‘more numbers focused' added: "Road stages in the Tour and the road race in Worlds, they're things that he's already done but this is one thing that's eluded him, so I've said that you have to let them happen but you have to come in and make this happen. It's once every four years. That's why he put his hand up for selection and he realizes that if he does ride well in the Omnium he has to contribute to Team Pursuit. And that takes a bigger commitment from him on the boards."
Cavendish has already made commitments, but as the road towards Rio narrows the Olympic Games is still no closer. Cross-roads are ahead but assuming he hits Sutton's numbers, and meets Salzwedel's commitments the chance to add to legacy remains in his hands.
"I've always wanted to be the best at everything that I did," he told the press. "Not just the best I could be but the best of everybody. It's like that now. I enjoy riding my bike, it's why I train, why I race but the winning bit is built into my nature."