Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) will ride the Tour of Flanders this weekend with two objectives. First, he’ll aim to support Bernhard Eisel in the Austrian’s quest for victory and second, he’ll be riding to experience the race first hand, having never competed in the Belgian Classic.
Cavendish is usually the rider on the team that has the loyal and dedicated support of his teammates, but on Sunday he’ll switch roles with Gent-Wevelgem winner Eisel, a rider who has sacrificed so much for the British sprinter in the last few years.
"I called Bernhard in the week and I said there are not many opportunities I get to go into a race and help someone. I’m usually protected or not good enough to help. This is the first time I’ve been genuinely excited about being part of something I think can succeed, by doing the hard graft before the finish for someone else. The goal is to get Bernie to win. He’s been so loyal to me I’m so motivated to help him onto the podium." he said.
Cavendish was quoted earlier in the year as saying he could one day win Flanders but he believes he was misquoted and that tomorrow’s debut in the race will be about gathering the evidence he needs to determine whether or not it’s a goal for the future.
"I’m riding this year to see if it’s a race I can win in the future but I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. I was misquoted when I said I could win this race."
His form coming into the event has been on an upwards trajectory. He felt strong during Milan-San Remo and won his first race of the season at the Volta a Catalunya. Whether he’ll finish tomorrow’s race is unknown, but whatever his final placing Cavendish will be at Eisel’s disposal. "If he needs me early on - anything can happen - but as long as he’s sheltered I’ll keep going as long as I can. Whenever I can do something I’ll do something. I’m pretty realistic."
The Classics hold a special place in Cavendish’s heart. He grew up watching them on television and dreaming about winning. With a San Remo title already under his belt more success is certainly on the cards, but it's history of each race that appeal to him.
"I was a fan of the Classics growing up. It’s the different aspects of the Monuments that make them special. You have San Remo and the story of how it unfolds - it’s beautiful to see. Roubaix is Roubaix and different to anything else in cycling, but in Flanders it’s the crowds and the legendary climbs that make the race. I grew up loving it."
Cavendish will not race Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix in the coming week. Instead, he’ll return to Italy where he can train for his next major objectives. While the green jersey at the Tour de France is far on the horizon, the Tour of California is only six weeks away. It’s a race that Cavendish will do instead of racing his preferred Giro d’Italia.
Asked why he made the choice to race in the US, he said: "I didn’t make the choice. I love Italy, I love the Giro, it’s one of my favourite races, but, you know, I’m paid to do this now so I have to do it.
"But it will be good preparation for the Tour though. The travelling, it’s great, but the route and the parcours is good. It’s like doing two weeks of the Giro. I’ll go there directly after Romandie so I can train into the race, so technically I’ll do a two week block, basically.
The Tour of California has moved from its normal slot in February to a May date. Along with a shift in the calendar, the route also looks tougher than ever with potential opportunities for the sprinters down to just a few stages. "The race is hard, it’s really hard. There are two sprint days I reckon. The first of those is usually the first stage so there’s a chance of getting the jersey, which is good publicity. It will be good preparation for the Tour though."