Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) on Wednesday issued a warning to his rivals hoping to end his sprint hegemony at the Tour de France, calling his current form “the best I’ve had in the past two years.”
Various media, and in particular French newspaper L’Équipe, speculated at the Tour of Switzerland last week that Cavendish's failure to win a stage was indicative of a lack of form ahead of the Grande Boucle.
Speaking to journalists in Bar Italia in London’s Soho on Wednesday, Cavendish said that nothing could be further from the truth.
“This is the best form I’ve had for two years, absolutely,” Cavendish said. “The difference compared to last year is that I’ve had no real problems, no crashes. OK, there were no bunch sprints for me to win at the Tour of Switzerland, but it was so mountainous that it’s bound to get you going for the Tour.
“I’m also a lot more confident this year,” he added. “I was confident last year but this year I’ve no accidents along the way to upset my build-up.”
Besides his form, the other subject of media conjecture in recent weeks has been Cavendish’s future with or without his current HTC-Highroad team. On Wednesday, the Manxman declined to comment on the matter but, speaking more generally, smiled when asked whether the public should expect more of the tears and tribulations which tend to accompany his Tours de France. “Oh, I’d bet on that. One hundred per cent,” he grinned.
This answer was typical of Cavendish’s bullish, often mischievous mood – which in itself is often an ominous sign for his opponents. Quizzed about his ambitions in the green jersey competition, he challenged the journalist who raised the topic: “Name the last two winners of the green jersey in the next two seconds! One, two….You see, you had to think about it.”
He went to clarify that, while the points competition remains an aim, his tactic will again be the one he has employed over the past two years – “focusing on winning stages first”. With a rule change this year meaning that each stage will feature only one intermediate sprint worth 20 points (as opposed to the six formerly on offer at multiple sprints on each stage), Cavendish nonetheless made no bones about the fact that he “will have to go for the intermediate sprints this time.”
“The organizers changed the rule because they saw that the fastest sprinter wasn’t winning the green jersey,” he said. “We’ve looked at where the intermediate sprints are, time limits, the maps, everything. We always do our homework. We very, very rarely make a mistake. Every other day at the moment, I’m looking at the profiles.”
The same route profiles have led Cavendish to conclude that there are “five stages that should end in sprints, of which two are completely flat, and seven that could.”
Unfortunately for those hoping to see the 26-year-old join compatriot David Millar in a career clean-sweep of all three major tour leaders jerseys, the first stage of the Tour finishing on the Mont des Alouettes is very much in the “maybe” category. The five per cent average gradient in the final kilometre that day has tempered Cavendish’s hopes of taking the first yellow jersey of the Tour.
“We’re not confident about that one,” he admitted. “We certainly won’t be working to pull back breaks. I’ve won on harder finishes but I’ve lost on easier ones.”
If Cavendish is to don the maillot jaune at this year’s race, it seems more likely to be at the end of the following day’s 23km time trial around Les Essarts.
“I’ve done five team time trials with this team and we’ve won three of them,” he boasted. “The two we didn’t win, it was only because I didn’t take charge of the team. But at the Tour, that day, I’ll have my full metal jacket on.”
Cavendish, incidentally, later made another prediction: “Philippe Gilbert will win on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 4. It’s his birthday as well that day. It’s 100 per cent guaranteed that he’ll win.”
Of his likely sprint opponents’ prospects, he was less sure.
“I don’t really look at what anyone else is doing, but I’m lucky that Matt Goss is on my team. [Alessandro] Petacchi is clever, then you’ve got Swifty [Ben Swift], but he’s more of a group sprinter than a bunch sprinter. There’s a big difference between group sprints and bunch sprints, and between bunch sprints at other races and at the Tour.”
Asked to comment finally on whether his former teammate cum foe Andre Greipel has a point to prove in his debut Tour, Cavendish was dismissive. “I think he’s got a point to prove to me and everyone else who’s beaten him,” he smiled.
Another rider also entering the Tour under considerable pressure is the favourite, Alberto Contador. Cavendish’s assessment of the ongoing questions about whether the Spaniard was doped with clenbuterol at last year’s Tour – and whether he should be allowed to defend his title – echoed that of a large share of the peloton: “I’d like it to have all got sorted. That’s the thing that frustrates me. It’s still rocking on, and it should have been dealt with by now.”