Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is the odds-on sprint favorite at the Amgen Tour of California and he is expecting to kick off the eight-stage race in the golden leader's jersey following the opening act, a 168km road race from Nevada City to Sacramento on Sunday, May 16. The Manxman is using the stateside event to prepare for bigger goals down the line, to win the green jersey at the Tour de France in July.
"The first stage will be a bunch sprint which is nice because it could put us in the leader's jersey right at the start," Cavendish told Cyclingnews. "It would be nice to start with the leader's jersey but I don't think I could defend it on the second day. It's hard, we did the parcours yesterday and it is pretty brutal actually. It looks like I won't be able to hold onto that."
HTC-Columbia recently completed an eight-day training camp in Santa Rosa, California in preparation for the Amgen Tour. The race holds a particular importance for the squad, a US-registered team with headquarters in San Luis Obispo, California. The eight-man team will include Cavendish along with last year's third place finisher Michael Rogers, Lars Ytting Bak, Bernhard Eisel, Tony Martin, Mark Renshaw, Bert Grabsch and Tejay Van Garderen.
"This is an American team, American sponsor and the biggest race in America so it makes sense," Cavendish said. "Our team brought the biggest riders here. We've got a great team with me for the sprints, Mick Rogers for the GC, Tony Martin and Grabsch for the time trial. We've covered pretty much all the stages and hopefully we win the GC.
"Overall it's a hard week and it will be nice to maybe get it off to a good start," Cavendish said. "It is absolutely a harder race than in the past. Everyone is going to be on good form because it's in May. It will make for hard racing, especially on this course."
Giving up pink for gold
The Amgen Tour's previous four editions were held in February and last year Cavendish won two stages along with the sprint classification. He went on to win three stages of the Giro d'Italia and wore the pink leader's jersey through the early stages in May last year. This year's event overlaps with the Italian Grand Tour and Cavendish felt it made more sense for him to compete stateside to help his team pursue the overall race win with Michael Rogers.
"I love to race the Giro, I've done that race for the last two years," Cavendish said. "That's not to say that I don't like riding in California. I'm here and not complaining that I'm here. It's better weather at this time than in February. It's a tough, tough race. Both races are hard and both are races that I can win in."
As for the sprints, Cavendish is confident that he is unrivaled despite there being several of the world's fastest sprinters in the peloton. Fast men eyeing the bunch kicks include Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Franceso Chicchi (Liquigas-Doimo), Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo TestTeam), Juan Jose Haedo (Saxo Bank) and Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Transitions).
"Quick Step might put the hammer down over the climbs to put pressure on me," said Cavendish. "Maybe that is my biggest threat. Tom Boonen's on good form this year, not necessarily for the sprints, but there are stages where he might get over a climb easier than me.
"If it comes down to a straight line [sprint], I've got my best lead-out team here with Mark Renshaw, Bernie Eisel, Tony Martin and with all eight of us here we've got an amazing lead-out team. I can't say, if it comes down to a straight line, that I have anything to worry about."
Shooting for green at the Tour de France
Cavendish won six stages at the Tour de France last year, including the final stage on the Champs-Elysees but it was not enough to garner the coveted green jersey won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam). This year, he is pulling out all the stops to prepare for the Tour even if it means winning less races in the early season.
"I've known all along that I wasn't going to win as many races this year, not because I'd lose the races but because I won't do them all," Cavendish said. "I won't do as many sprint races because I want to do the races that are going to get me in the best form possible for the Tour de France, the hard races that make me suffer out the back and chase through the mountains. The green jersey is my biggest target, the biggest goal. The green jersey is what I have to win this year."
Cavendish capped off a successful early season in 2009 with wins at Milan-San Remo, the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, two stages in Three Days of De Panne, two stages at the Tour of Qatar along with his two stages wins at the Tour of California. This year, he won only two races at the Tour de Romandie and Volta a Catalunya, a decrease he partially attributes to oral surgery in January. More so, he rescheduled his calendar to compete in less races and is confident that will better prepare him for the Tour de France.
"When we sat down in January I had problems with my teeth," Cavendish said. "We discussed the preparation for the Tour de France, which is my goal for this year. Now, things are not just on track but ahead of track. I think it's a common misconception that I haven't won this year because I've been beaten, it's not that. I haven't won because I haven't done any sprints. I've only done four sprints and I lost two; one because it was my first race back and the other because I messed up and then I won the other two.
"Instead of going to Three Days of De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem, I went to Catalunya," he said. "So I won one stage there instead of winning two at De Panne and possibly another at Gent-Wevelgam, that's all counting on the Tour de France this year. If I win stages there and I win the green jersey then it will all be forgotten that I haven't won anything so far this year."