Asked to assess Barry Markus, his closest rival on stages 3 and 4 of the Tour of Qatar, Mark Cavendish admitted that he had never heard of the Vacansoleil-DCM youngster before this week. Yet for his part, Markus has been gauging himself against Cavendish from his very first pedal strokes as a professional.
A product of the Rabobank Continental stable, Markus was snapped up by Vacansoleil as a stagiaire in late 2011, and one of his first races with the team was that year's Tour of Britain. Barely 20 years-old, Markus placed fourth in the first bunch sprint in Dumfries, where Cavendish was the winner. Within two weeks, Cavendish was the world champion, while Markus was only setting out on his apprenticeship as a sprinter.
Like Cavendish, Markus has received a sizeable amount of his grounding on the track, and so it's perhaps no surprise to learn that he favours short, explosive sprints rather than longer, steadier efforts.
"Last year I was Dutch Madison champion and this year I did two six day races and I the points race in the national championships too," Markus said, adding that he treads the boards purely to complement his road training and that he has no intentions of riding track at the world championships or Olympics: "I like it during the winter, but only for that."
Both of Markus' second place finishes in Qatar came in particularly chaotic finales, where no single team was able to organise the peloton to its liking in the closing kilometres. Jumping from wheel to wheel in search of the right lead-out, Markus' bike handling skills came to the fore in particular on stage 3.
"It's dangerous in the finale but I try to stay on the wheel of Cavendish or my teammates [Juan Antonio] Flecha and [Kenny] van Hummel. They bring me to the front, and then in the last 200 metres, I do my sprint," he said matter-of-factly.
The softly-spoken Markus hails from Hoofddorp, near Schiphol Airport on the fringes of Amsterdam, and while he grew up a follower of Ajax Amsterdam, he swapped the ball for the bike during his teenage years. He graduated to ride for Rabobank's Continental squad, but all the while, Vacansoleil directeur sportif Michel Cornelisse was keeping a watchful eye on his progress.
"I've known him for a long time. He was in the same club as me in Holland," Cornelisse said. "He joined Rabobank Continental, where maybe people didn't see him so often because they do a lot of hilly races. But we knew that he was a very good sprinter, so we took him early, at 20 years of age."
Markus' stand-out performance in his first full professional season came at Dwars door Drenthe, where he was narrowly beaten by Theo Bos - by centimetres, Cornelisse lamented - and he is aiming to continue his development in 2013.
"I'm not doing the big classics but I'll do some smaller races and some stage races, and I hope I can win something," said Markus, who shyly confided that he had been a sprinter from the moment he began racing.
That rapid finish first came to the fore on the international stage as far back as 2009, when he outgunned Arnaud Démare in a bunch sprint for the silver medal at the European junior championships. The result is indicative of Markus' pedigree given that Démare has since gone on to win the under-23 world title and clocked up seven wins in his debut professional season with FDJ last year, but the Dutchman was reluctant to read too much into it.
"Racing with the juniors is not the same as with the professionals, finals are much harder and it's difficult to stay on the front but every year is going better," he said cautiously.
And as for the lofty goal of getting the better of Cavendish, Markus is similarly modest. "Every year I'm getting better and I'd like to beat him," he said. "But right now he is too strong for me."