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All aboard the Columbia train

He's got the perfect train: Cavendish on stage 2

He's got the perfect train: Cavendish on stage 2 (Image credit: AFP)

The Columbia-HTC lead-out train showed the others how to do it on stage one of the Tour de France, propelling Mark Cavendish to his first stage win of this Tour, and fifth in total.

And yet it had looked, in the final kilometres, as though the well-drilled yellow, white and green machine wouldn’t have things all their own way. Team Milram, with former Columbia man Gerald Ciolek, the Cervelo Test Team, with Thor Hushovd, and Garmin-Slipstream, with Tyler Farrar, sent their own trains up to the front, all of them competing for the same small space of road at the head of the peloton.

Whether they continue to put such effort into setting up their sprinters in the days ahead – given the almost embarrassing margin of Cavendish’s victory in Brignoles – remains to be seen. But it was telling that, no matter how many other teams swarmed to the front, creating no end of chaos and distraction, the Columbia boys stuck doggedly to their task, and the train remained intact.

Mark Renshaw was the last man, as per the plan, taking over from Tony Martin, who in turn had relieved George Hincapie of pace-setting duties. Earlier, the rider described by manager Bob Stapleton as the team’s "workhorse," Bert Grabsch, put in a big shift helping to pull back the four-man break, helped at the front by another man assigned to that task – Bernhard Eisel. Get used to seeing their faces at the font of the bunch.

Renshaw, a strong sprinter in his own right, admits that, "I give away a lot of chances [to win] to help Mark, but that’s what the team pays me to do. I knew that when I signed [from the disbanded Credit Agricole] and I had no qualms about it.

"Mark and I have a good relationship," he continues, "and we’re becoming good friends, which helps a lot. I have an important role; I need to get him to the front in the perfect spot, and it’s worked well this year. The Giro is where it really started working well, and we’re looking to repeat it here."

The 26-year old Australian explained, before yesterday’s stage, how the ‘train’ operates in the finale: "Here we’ve got George Hincapie and Tony Martin, who are key riders for me. The order is George leading Tony leading me.

"George is one of the best guys on the road for positioning; he knows where we have to be; then Tony has got amazing horsepower. For the last ‘K’ Tony needs to lead from 1K to 600m, or 550m, to go. Then I take over, but we’re going that fast by then that no one’s moving.

"In the Giro that’s how it worked: we were doing 65/68kph an hour at 600m to go [when Edvald Boasson Hagen was doing the job that Martin is assigned to do at the Tour], and if you look at the power and watts we’re putting out, no one can move. When he peels off, I’ve got a good 400m in my legs, and then I leave Cav with about 180m. We’re looking to repeat that here."

And today they did – spectacularly.

Renshaw says that there is little communication in those final few kilometres, save for the odd yell of "yes" or "easy." "It’s not ‘no’ or ‘go,’" he reveals, "because we can get those [words] mixed up."

As for what makes Cavendish so dominant, Renshaw makes a surprising claim – not his acceleration, or sense of positioning, but his diminutive size. "His size is what really helps him," says Renshaw, "he’s so much smaller than the other sprinters, and so saves a lot of watts. That’s his big gain."

Cavendish has only suffered two defeats all year – to the man placed second today, Farrar, and to Alessandro Petacchi in the first bunch sprint at the Giro. "That was a bit of a wake up call for him," says Renshaw. "But I think it was a good thing: now he knows that the moment I start to die, he has to go. Whether it’s 250m or whatever, he has to take the initiative. But he’s not going to make the same mistake at the Tour.

"At our first ride together at the Tour of California we had a bit of a shocker," continues Renshaw. "I thought we had it together but we didn’t, and it took a couple of days. The combination has worked well since then, I think because Cav has complete trust in me. Sometimes it gets mixed up and we have to use another train, but Cav knows that even if we are in a bad position with 600m to go, I’m going to get him out of there. I think that’s the benefit of being a sprinter myself – I know where he needs to be."

Renshaw admits he has ambitions to become the "main man" himself. "Yes, for sure," he says. "For the last few years I’ve wanted to progress, and I want to be a sprinter myself – it wouldn’t be natural if I didn’t want to win races."

Like Cavendish, Renshaw wants to reach Paris having abandoned last year with illness. On Cavendish’s green jersey prospects he says: "It’s unknown territory but he’s finished a Grand Tour [last year’s Giro] and I think he’s progressed this year. He’s lost a lot of weight and he’s the skinniest I’ve seen him now. It’s an objective to get to Paris for him and me – and if he can get four or five victories he’ll be in the running for green."

That’s one down – how many more to go?
 

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Richard Moore is a freelance journalist and author. His first book, In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), won Best Biography at the 2008 British Sports Book Awards. His second book, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes (HarperSport), was long-listed for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

He writes on sport, specialising in cycling, and is a regular contributor to Cyclingnews, the Guardian, skyports.com, the Scotsman and Procycling magazine.

He is also a former racing cyclist who represented Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and Great Britain at the 1998 Tour de Langkawi

His next book, Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France, will be published by Yellow Jersey in May 2011.

Another book, Sky’s the Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer the Tour de France, will also be published by HarperSport in June 2011.