Mark Cavendish insisted he is relaxed and confident about his form before the start of the Giro d’Italia but appeared on edge as he answered questions from the media on Wednesday, brushing away suggestions that he and other pure sprinters have a chance of winning Friday’s opening stage on the riding finish above Visegrád, north of Budapest.
There were no questions about Cavendish securing a place in the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team for the Tour de France or his plans beyond 2022 but the Zoom call seemed more painful than a visit to the dentist.
Cavendish returns to the Giro d’Italia after a nine-year hiatus, during which his sprint campaign often included the Tour of California in May and focused more on the Tour de France in July. He has won 15 stages at the Italian Grand Tour, as well as enjoying two stints in the leader's maglia rosa and taking home the red points classification jersey in his last appearance in 2013.
Cavendish will turn 37 on May 21, when the Giro climbs around Turin on stage 14, and has transcended several generations of sprinters. After almost a decade away, sprinting still inspires and motivates him but also leaves him curious about how the Giro d’Italia sprints have changed.
"It’s always a race I’ve liked to do in the past. Obviously the dynamic might have changed after nine years, so it might not be the race I remember. We’ll see. But it’s a race," he said, seemingly happy to compete whenever possible, after not turning his legs in anger for a month.
"I’ve prepared for this race and I hadn’t prepared for the Tour last year, so I feel quite relaxed," he said when asked to compare his return to the Giro to his hugely successful return to Grand Tour racing at last year’s Tour de France, where he won four stages and the green points jersey.
"I think I’m in pretty similar form to last year. I had good build-up and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at."
Cavendish has already won three times this season, at the Tour of Oman, the UAE Tour and Milano-Torino in March, despite crashing hard at the Gent Six Day in November.
"Because I was winning early, people tend to forget that I had a punctured lung at the end of November. Of course it’s hard, but I work hard. It doesn’t come easy," he made clear.
Strong teammates and strong rivals
Cavendish will clash with Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) across seven expected sprint opportunities at the Giro d’Italia.
However, he played down the chances of the sprinters dominating in Visegrád on Friday. "I think most pure sprinters won’t be in contention on the first stage," he said.
"The Giro has always had some savage stages this year’s no different but it’s the same for everyone isn’t it?"
The only thing to raise a smile from Cavendish was a question about his teammates and especially his sprint lead-out, which includes valued last man Michael Mørkøv.
The Dane guided Cavendish to four stage wins at last year’s Tour de France and was a somewhat surprise selection for lead-out duty in Italy. He has spent much of this season riding with Fabio Jakobsen, who is slated to ride the 2022 Tour as QuickStep’s lead sprinter, but has also helped Cavendish to victory in the UAE Tour and Milano-Torino. The two are different characters but combine perfectly in sprints.
"We’ve got a good team, we’re on form," Cavendish said. "I love riding with Morky (Michael Mørkøv), but it’s not just Morky. We’ve got an incredibly strong team here, with Bert [Van Lerberghe], Ballero (Davide Ballerini), Mauro Schmid, Mauri Vansevenant and Knoxy (James Knox). They’re brilliant guys to ride around Italy with, both on the bike and at the dinner table. I’m very happy with this line-up.
"It’s nice to have people you trust. It’s not just Michael, it’s the guys ahead of him, too. It makes his job easier when he has guys he can follow. That’s the biggest factor for my confidence for the Giro. I know I have guys ahead of me that I can trust."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.