Persistence pays off as Belgian tracks rider's career
Patrick Lefevere’s persistence finally paid off when he landed the signing of Mark Cavendish and according to the Omega Pharma-QuickStep boss he has been keeping close tabs on the sprinter’s future since his breakthrough year in 2008.
“For a team it’s always important to have a sprinter. We wanted Mark on the team a long time ago,” Lefevere told Cyclingnews.
During a visit to the 2008 Giro with several of his sponsors, Lefevere watched as Cavendish won two stages, but it was during the stage to Locarno, one that Cavendish didn’t win, that drew Lefevere’s attention.
“I remember I went to the Giro in 2008 and he was very upset about an incident that occurred between him and Greipel. He let Greipel win and Greipel disagreed. Mark was very upset and I said to my sponsors, 'this is a guy with guts, we have to have him on the team'. He was contracted for a few years, though, and last year we wanted him but with the whole Sky story it was hard.”
Cavendish’s possible departure from Sky surfaced towards the end of this year’s Tour. Dave Brailsford pointed to the door by suggesting the sprinter could be better off on a different team. Those words were then echoed by Bradley Wiggins, leaving Cavendish in a position to open discussions with other squads in August.
QuickStep was quickly touted as the most likely destination. Heavily financed by a Czech backer and with a roster capable of providing a dedicated lead-out, the chance of working with Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm also added to the attraction.
“At the Tour, even the blind could see that he wasn’t happy,” Lefevere told Cyclingnews. "Then Dave said he could leave the team. But between saying it and doing it, there’s a big difference. Even Wiggins said he could go or it would be better if he goes. I followed the move and in August I was in London for the Olympic time trial and visited Wasserman Media Group [Cavendish's agent] and I sat down with them, like I sit down with 50 agents this year, and we spoke.”
Sky reportedly agreed to tear up the rider’s contract and wave the fee attached to it, leaving Cavendish free to sign. Now Lefevere’s attention can turn to building the team around his new star. The decks have already been cleared with Francesco Chicchi (Farnese Vini - Selle Italia), Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) both leaving for pastures new and Levi Leipheimer ushered out due to his doping confession. There's a question of how Cavendish and Boonen split their goals but Lefevere identifies that if the goals are clear then both riders will respect one another.
The Belgian team must now try to assemble their best lead-out train. Often Cavendish can win without such support – as shown during this year’s Tour - but with a train he’s near unbeatable and with Tom Boonen, Matt Brammeier, Bert Grabsch, Gert Steegmans, Andrew Fenn and Stijn Vandenbergh all in contention, Lefevere’s main challenge appears to centre around who will be Cavendish’s final lead-out man.
“We have a little bit to do and there will be tryouts but I think on paper we have enough riders to do it. There are things we need to try out, though. Maybe Steegmans is the best, maybe it’s Boonen, maybe another.”
And Lefevere doesn’t envisage Cavendish having any issues over leadership as he did during this year’s Tour de France.
“We don’t have a GC rider. Of course we have Peter Velits but it won’t be like this year for Cavendish at Sky.”
Best of the Best
Having worked with some of the biggest names in the sport over the last 30 years Lefevere is no stranger to top level sprinters. While he believes it unfair to decide who the best sprinter of all time is, he admits that when it comes to wining Tour de France stages, Cavendish is in a league of his own. In five editions of the race he has amassed a total of 23 stages, leaving him fourth on an all-time list behind Eddy Merckx (34), Bernard Hinault (28), and André Leducq (25). The Manxman has won as many Tour stages as Australia, and more than the United States of America.
“The best ever? I don’t like to compare generations. He never sprinted against the guys from the '50s, '60s and '70s. Those guys had different tools compared to the sprinters from today so it’s not fair to compare generations. I had the luck to work with Mario Cipollini and with Tom Steels and of course they all had something special. You’ll never know who the best ever is but at the Tour de France Mark has been the best sprinter I’ve ever seen.”
The Levi Effect
The departure of Leipheimer came just before Cavendish signed and led to speculation that the American was sacrificed in order to make room for Cavendish. However, Lefevere believes that he had no choice and that once the rider confessed to doping there was no room for him on the team.
“I had no choice. Above my team I have a board. All the riders have to sign they weren’t involved in doping, and then it comes out that he was involved. The board was very clear that he had to stop with us. Of course he was defended by USADA but we have nothing to do with USADA. We have our rules and they have their rules.
“Of course you hear the rumours. I heard about Hans-Michael Holczer writing something about Levi in his book but if you don’t have proof you have to be silent. There was only one man who could say if it was untrue or true and that was Levi.”