Mark Renshaw's year of living dangerously

Rabobank recruit Mark Renshaw knows how to get results. In his three seasons under the Highroad banner, the Australian maximised his position leaving little doubt that he is the world's best lead out man. In 2012, Renshaw is facing a new challenge as he takes on the role as the Dutch team's number one sprinter, ready to be first across the finish line instead of dragging a teammate to the prize. Prior to embarking on the most pivotal season of his career to date, the 29-year-old spoke candidly to Cyclingnews about what's driving him in his bid to break the dominance of former teammate, Mark Cavendish.

Claiming the overall victory at the Tour of Qatar, the first of its kind in his eight-year pro career, was not the catalyst in making a determined effort to become a sprinting king pin. Renshaw puts it down to luck – the misfortune of others the likes of Cavendish who were lacking in form while the desert sun bathed light on the early part of the season. There had been times in the past where Renshaw felt his own form had been better, but until then the opportunity had eluded him. In fact, it was a race he'd never wanted to contemplate prior to that first appearance.

"The thought of being in the gutter straight away from kilometre zero, fighting for position in February," Renshaw told Cyclingnews of his previous disdain for the race. "You always see the list of names that break their collarbones and thighs and pelvis – I just had a different vision. I thought it would be like going to hell and back.

"I'd only heard the stories and I said I'd never go there but then the team ended up twisting my arm."

And so in 2012, Renshaw is looking forward to his Qatari return but first, he'll need to eat his words again.

National service

I come to Ballarat every year out of respect to the national championships but if the course doesn't change next year, I won't be coming back – Renshaw, January 2011

He will be back to race the challenging 10.2 kilometre circuit around Mount Buninyong in Victoria next month. The bone of contention for Renshaw, along with a host of Australia's top sprinters including Robbie McEwen and Graeme Brown is that the current course - with a near-three kilometre climb at a gradient of 10 per cent – raced over 16 laps has decided Australia's road champion since 2007.

"I've spoken to Cycling Australia on numerous occasions about the circuit, about changing it," Renshaw confirmed. "Hopefully through opening my big mouth the circuit will change in 2013. It needs it. I don't want an easy circuit; I don't want a hard circuit. I just want some variation."

The Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships are an important stepping stone towards the first WorldTour race of the season, the Santos Tour Down Under held in Adelaide and so, along with long hours on the country roads surrounding his Bathurst home behind his father Michael on the scooter the aim is to ride himself into the best form possible in January.

"Out of respect for the jersey, I'll go down and I'll have to eat my words," Renshaw explained to Cyclingnews. "By the same token I'm very disappointed in [race director] John Craven."

At the same time, Renshaw is "realistic" about his first task of the new season on a course which has become notorious for its high attrition rate, (48 of the 159 elite men finished in 2011) and also given he is yet to post a result at Mount Buninyong.

"With the course down there I don't think I'll have much of a show but I'd be happy to finish top 10," he admitted. "You never know with the form of the guys in January, it can be a bit hit and miss. I think I'll really be up against it."

When it comes to the Tour Down Under, where Renshaw has previously won a stage (Angaston 2008) along with the lead-up criterium, the Cancer Council Classic (2007), he'd prefer it if his competition knew as little about his form as possible. The inclusion of a likely-decisive hilltop finish at Old Willunga Hill on Stage 5 for the 2012 event has not deterred some of the world's best fast men, when it comes to the traditionally sprinter-friendly race with the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Oscar Freire (Katusha), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), and the usual bunch of Australians including Matt Goss, Leigh Howard, Robbie McEwen (GreenEdge) and Chris Sutton (Sky) all set to line up. Renshaw is certain that if any of them are to succeed on general classification, they'll need a head start.

"I'm really focussed on getting a stage result [at TDU] and then we'll see how it pans out towards the end of the Tour," he explained. "It's going to be quite hard for the sprinters this year with the hilltop finish. We'll have to notch up a few continuous results in the first three stages to get a good buffer on some of the climbers."

Stoking the fire

Had Bob Stapleton found a sponsor for HighRoad, Renshaw is convinced he would be now be facing up to the same task for the season ahead, contracted for 2012 and firm in the belief that his teammates Cavendish and Goss had long ago made their decision to leave the highly successful outfit.

"Their goal was to secure me and maybe Leigh Howard or [John] Degenkolb or one of the younger guys as well," he explained. "That's why I was happy to stay."

But it was the events of early September which may end up playing a considerable role in any success which comes Renshaw's way when he goes head-to-head with his former teammates and the man himself admits to being spurred on. When asked about his omission from Australia's team for the UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen, any comments are unashamedly tinged with a bitterness that's unmistakeable in the usually affable Renshaw.

In his role of Cycling Australia's Professional Men's Road Coordinator Matthew White, now confirmed as directeur sportif for GreenEdge, explained that Renshaw's non-selection came down to concerns over his ability to manage the 266 kilometre course. Maintaining his cynicism, Renshaw thinks the decision had more to do with him not signing with GreenEdge, a team he only discussed racing with over "two or three" phone conversations and never received a proposal from.

Renshaw also admits to being disappointed to not receiving more support from Goss, although the pair has not gone so far as to having a permanent falling out.

"Their goal all along was for him [Goss] to be their team leader there and they had him pencilled in to be at GreenEdge next year," he explained. "I think I would have liked to have seen a bit more commitment from him but that's how it pans out. I know he did mention it but I don't know that he pushed it enough."

Renshaw reserves his strongest criticism for White.

"There can't be any kind of reason why Matt White had something such against me to not select me," he reasoned. "I took it pretty personally.

"Obviously I race with these guys and I've known him [White] for such a long time and for him not to give me the chance to have a go and then to give me the reasons not to be there... I think I deserved a start."

So would he have been the difference between Goss' silver and Cavendish's gold medal?

"I know if I was there I would have kept it on the right side up against the fence," Renshaw explained to Cyclingnews. "I don't know if the result would have been different. Cav's still the fastest sprinter in the world so I don't know if anyone deserves the world champion's jersey more than him. But in saying that you never know how the race would have panned out."

While he would no doubt like to think he will get the chance to set the record straight at the London Olympic Games road race on July 28, and he'll be doing everything he can to be there, Renshaw seems almost resigned to becoming a victim of the internal politics he suggests.

"It's going to be really difficult with all the guys in GreenEdge," he told Cyclingnews with four spots remaining on the team after Goss secured his start with the result in Copenhagen. "I've heard selectors throwing around the idea that it's not going to be a sprinters course when I spoke directly with Cav' and he's told me it's going to be a sprint. It's like groundhog day all over again, they say it's hard and everyone else says it's easy."

Playing to win

Given the momentous role that Renshaw played in Cavendish's success, the mind begins to boggle at the task that the Australian has at hand when it comes to getting in front of the 'Manx Missile' - and staying there in the fight to the finish line. This time, Renshaw needs to get the better of the one man in the peloton who knows his every move, an instinct that's a legacy of devastatingly successful professional partnership.

Renshaw thinks that for any advantage to be gained, he'll have to catch Cavendish off-guard and out of position.

"He's been so successful because we've always had him in the perfect position in every race," Renshaw explained. "Next year we might see a little bit more, I don't like to say it, but a little bit more chaos in the sprints. I don't enjoy them but I think there will be quite a few teams as strong as one another and that's why it will even out. "

In the finely-balanced numbers game that makes or breaks a lead-out train, Renshaw is confident his Rabobank team can play the game just as well as any other team in the peloton with the ability to call on Jos van Emden, Lars Boom, Graeme Brown, Michael Matthews, and Maarten Tjallingii. It's likely that there will be the odd opportunity where Renshaw combines but for the most part, he and Theo Bos will be running different programs with the Australian racing Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, with then the option of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya or Gent-Wevelgem and Shelderprijs before the lead into July.

While it takes vision of Nostradamus-like proportions to predict how 2012 will play out, it's the experiences garnered over the past nine seasons that allows Renshaw the self-confidence to believe in his own abilities to take on his new role. FDJ was all about adapting to the road and ridding himself of the track legs collected as a junior. Credit-Agricole was a step up again in professionalism but with HighRoad, Renshaw well and truly found his feet.

"The skills I picked up over the years at HTC were pretty good to take over in a lead sprinter role," he said. "I think a lot of these I learned from Bernhard Eisel and the directeur sportifs like Allan Pieper, Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm.

"I think I've got pretty good leadership qualities. If I can put them into practice I think it's pretty positive."

There will be more from Mark Renshaw throughout 2012 as he joins Cyclingnews as a blogger.

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As a sports journalist and producer since 1997, Jane has covered Olympic and Commonwealth Games, rugby league, motorsport, cricket, surfing, triathlon, rugby union, and golf for print, radio, television and online. However her enduring passion has been cycling.


Jane is a former Australian Editor of Cyclingnews from 2011 to 2013 and continues to freelance within the cycling industry.