Horizons broadened on shifting sands

An interview with Mark Renshaw, October 21, 2008

There's a breed of rider that builds their career on the service of others. This has been the case thus far for Australian Mark Renshaw. But as the disappointment of one of cycling's oldest teams ceasing to exist has begun to sink in for the peloton, it has provided him with an outstanding opportunity and the chance to display the extent of his talents, as Cyclingnews' Les Clarke finds out.

George Hincapie is an enduring American favourite thanks to his support of Lance Armstrong throughout the Texan's seven Tour de France titles, while Milram's Marco Velo has seen 12 years of service as a professional workhorse for sprinters such as Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi. He's often credited by the latter for delivering his man to the line and as such is in demand come contract negotiation time.

Velo has been national time trial champion in the past, as has Hincapie, and both have enjoyed the odd win here and there. It's their ability to work tirelessly and effectively for a star however, that has made them such popular riders. In Australia, Mark Renshaw has enjoyed similar popularity due to his work ethic and tenacious sprinting, both of which were formed as a junior track rider from Bathurst, on the central tablelands of New South Wales, and honed in the Grand Tours of Europe.

At this year's Tour de France Renshaw was lead-out man for Thor Hushovd, a role inherited from Julian Dean, the New Zealander who has found his home at Garmin Chipotle. Just like Dean, several aspects of riding for a French team didn't suit this antipodean and he finds himself settling into a new squad in 2009 – Team Columbia.

"Once Crédit announced they didn't have a sponsor, I had to start looking around because [Roger] Legeay had basically over a year to find one; if he hadn't found one in a year I doubt he was going to find one in a month," said Renshaw. "I started looking around, made a few calls... I know Allan Peiper pretty well from the last few years racing, so I gave him a quick call and those guys were confident Ciolek was leaving.

"Allan's seen me race a lot over the years, so we set up some meetings and it was one of the more preferable teams to go to. It's just the way they've dominated this year... they've got over 80 victories so far. To go to a team with that environment is really going to rub off on me; thus far I'm a guy who can win a few races a year, and if I go to a team like that I can't see why I can't win 10 races a year."

Hushovd to Cavendish

Renshaw's rise to sprint train 'marshall' was realised after Hushovd's Tour stage win in Saint Brieuc. Flying down the right-hand side of the road, the Australian mustered all his strength to help his Norwegian teammate to the line, holding off the challenge of Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen. Later, after an appearance on the podium, the green jersey winner at the 2005 Tour praised Renshaw's efforts.

"It was a really hard sprint, with the wind in the finale and in the climbs, but I knew it was a sprint that fits me well," said Hushovd. "My teammates did a good job again, and especially Mark Renshaw. He was awesome until with 200 metres to go and then it was just up to me to do a sprint." It was ironic, however, that the man beaten in one of Renshaw's biggest moments as a pro may be the beneficiary of his services in 2009.

The man most likely to realise the full extent of Renshaw's lead-out capabilities is Mark Cavendish, who beat Hushovd in four stages of this year's Tour. Taking a young rider whose star has well and truly risen to the line is a potentially daunting task, and this isn't lost on the 26 year-old Australian. "It's a big step up, and hopefully I've been brought over to help Cavendish in the Tour. He doesn't need any help, but I can take him [to the line] in the Tour next year.

"I get along [with Cavendish] pretty well. I haven't caught up with him for a ride since I've signed... I know him pretty well and I've done a few races with him on the track; I'm only two years older than he is."

Team Columbia Directeur Sportif Allan Peiper is confident this will be the case in 2009, and explained the plan the team has for Renshaw. "Initially, part of the deal with bringing Mark Renshaw into the team was to be a locomotive for Mark Cavendish or even Andre Greipel. Mark understands that – it's just the pecking order at the moment. I've told him that there will be times when we've got another program running and he'll have to step up; he can, and he'll be expected to.

"He's won two races this year – he was second in Hamburg and won in Franco Belge against some good sprinters. I've seen Greipel and Cavendish break through in the last year-and-a-half and find their place in the peloton, in a few different aspects; how they position themselves and have confidence in that in addition to confidence in reading the sprint. Cav didn't have that last year, and it took him until this year in the Giro to do so.

"Every race since the Giro he's known exactly where he's had to be – he's not coming from ten back anymore, he's in the right position and he knows when to go. It's the same thing with Greipel, which we thought was going to be a little more difficult. He did well at the Tour Down Under at the start of the year which is good, but when you get back to Europe and there are different fields he's still been able to rack up 15 wins. I think Mark [Renshaw] is just knocking on the door for that."

This is in contrast to the aforementioned Hincapie or Velo, whose roles have been clear cut for most of their careers. It's a vote of confidence from a man who honed his own skills under the watchful eye of Peter Post and the Panasonic team; Team Columbia has faith in Renshaw to win races, not just help achieve them. Peiper wants to provide Renshaw with maximum opportunity to win races in different places, something his younger countryman is excited about, given the 'stagnant' nature of racing for a French outfit, as he points out. "Next year's going to be excellent; just doing a big programme with major races.

"The whole outlook of the team on cycling is different to that of Crédit Agricole," continues Renshaw. "The latter is much more 'old school' – there wasn't an interest in change, and it's been done a certain way for so long. The team has won so many races doing it the old way, so the management didn't see a reason to change. The outlook of Columbia is very different to Crédit; a lot more modern, with a wider view. The team is always looking for ways to change and ways to get better."

This is something reiterated by Peiper, who says that, "Nothing against the team he's come from, Crédit Agricole, but I think the bar is a bit higher in our team as well. Plus we've won 83 races this year, so it has been raised very high. Even the races in the States are super important because we've got an American sponsor, and we're doing ProTour races with three sprinters... which is the triple attack we were talking about two years ago.

"We said we'd try and have a couple of sprinters, and we've still got Henderson, so actually we've got four sprinters we can count on to take to different races; we'll always have a tactic, and we're not just arriving at the races without any structure. I think the tools of the team – SRM, aerodynamic equipment and testing – we use because they're the best. We have good deals with all our partners and I think all those things are really going to help get a couple of per cent advantage and make a bit of a difference."

Now back in Australia, Renshaw hopes to maintain his legs over the off season with another appearance at January's Bay Series Criteriums, where he'll be going for three consecutive overall titles and getting a bit of, "punch and speed" for the Tour Down Under. His programme in 2009 will be more complete than what has been set in previous years, and given the prominence of Team Columbia this may work well into his potential for selection in Australia's world championships teams. Overlooked in recent years, the mantle of team sprinter may fall to him, possibly on home soil in 2010.

"I was a bit upset not to get picked in the worlds team [this year], but you can't sit on it and huff and puff. I showed I had good form in Hamburg, but obviously the selectors only wanted to take Alby [Allan Davis - ed.] – who climbs better than me – and Robbie [McEwen], who won Hamburg. They can't take any more than two sprinters, so I can see where their point was. For me, the next goal would be the world championships when they're in Melbourne. That's something I'm going to start working towards over the next few years and it's a really good goal to have."

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