Mark Cavendish has struggled on the climbs at Tirreno-Adriatico, confirming he is still far from his best after missing a vital block of pre-season training due to major dental problems. However both his sprint coach Erik Zabel and Mario Cipollini have refused to write him off as a possible Milan-Sanremo winner.
Zabel was with Cavendish for the opening two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and will be back in Italy next week for Milan-Sanremo. Zabel won Italian classic four times during his career and knows that because the race is such a lottery, the strongest and fittest rider doesn't always win.
"We expected him to be in better shape after what we saw at Strade Bianche. I was surprised that he lost contact with the group but you know, that's cycling," Zabel told Cyclingnews.
"We haven't made a big deal about it because we still believe there's a chance for Mark to be there in Milan-Sanremo. Of course after his teeth problems, he's not had the best preparation for the season but you've always got to give it a go because you never know what might happen in Milan-Sanremo."
Mario Cipollini was one of the first people to congratulate Cavendish after he beat Heinrich Haussler to win Milan-Sanremo last year. He is often critical of riders in a column he does for Gazzetta dello Sport but has huge respect for Cavendish after he won Milan-San Remo at the very first attempt in 2009.
"You can see that Mark is behind with his training and is struggling. And he needs this race to find some form. But he's very young and so gets on form really quickly. He's also very talented and has huge class, so I'd never right him off," Cipollini told Cyclingnews.
Looking at the big picture
Zabel's words reflect those of the HTC-Columbia team and Cavendish himself. His hopes of a second victory at Milan-Sanremo may be slim but he has other major goals later in the season and will perhaps be stronger and hungrier than ever before after struggling in the Spring.
"It's important to remember that Milan-Sanremo is not the end of the world," Zabel pointed out.
"If he's a little behind in the Spring, maybe that means he'll be fresher for the Tour de France, when he's going for the green jersey, and for sure for the world championships in Australia. We have to look on the bright side of things, look at the big picture."