Cavendish is set to take part in the Volta ao Algarve which starts today but he has not won a race since the final stage of last year's Tour of Britain. He used the Tour de San Luis to hone his form at the start of this season but came away without a win at the Dubai Tour earlier this month due to a combination of factors including Marcel Kittel's exceptional form, positioning in the sprints and what every rider fears, bad luck.
"Mark is in good form and he's really improving. Everyone always says that they need an extra race to get ready but Mark is there. At the moment Kittel is flying and he's a good rider but Mark is getting better. It's all about getting into a flow though and there's still no doubt from me that Cavendish is still the fastest one," Steels told Cyclingnews.
In his day Steels was one of the fastest sprinters of his generation, winning stages in the Tour and his national championships. He understands, more than most, the complexities within sprinting. At a training camp in Spain last month Cavendish told Cyclingnews that it can take three seasons for a leadout train to gel into a cohesive unit.
"He's always performing when he needs to. He won 20 races last year and you can’t do that if you don’t respect your own abilities and work hard," Steels added.
"Everyone on the team respects Cavendish. In cycling it's about whether you perform or not and with Cavendish everyone on the team works for him and really rides for him. He’s a leader and we're committed to him, always.
"With the leadout everyone has their own qualities and when you bring them together with two or three guys everything has to be right so there's no second option or second chance. We have to put Cavendish in the right position in order to win and that process takes times. Every race is different and there's never one clear line. It's chaotic, there's a big fight, but we need them to have confidence in each other."
Kittel's exploits in Dubai, where he won the three flat stages, had many fans and pundits proclaiming the German as the fastest sprinter. However, Steels believes that with Cavendish's major objectives coming later in the season Dubai only provided a short term snap shot.
"You have to look at things in the long term and not just over three days. Mark had some bad luck in Dubai as well so we'll have to wait for the other races. But what I've seen between how Petacchi and Renshaw have ridden together has pleased me."
The Omega Pharma QuickStep leadout has been extensively covered with Mark Renshaw having linked up with Cavendish once more and Petacchi providing his unrivalled experience into the mix since mid-way through last season. On paper it's an unmatchable combination – certainly in terms of reputation – but Steels adds that relationships between riders can take time.
"I think they [Renshaw and Petacchi] can swap but they're both high quality riders. The main thing is that Renshaw and Petacchi haven't ridden together before this year. They're different riders with different characters and styles to get into position. It's also new work for Petacchi but what we've seen at the end of last year and this year is that he uses his racing brain so well. He has so much intelligence."
"I had Zanini for a while and he was the best. He was so good I could follow him blindly. I never questioned him or his tactics and that saved me a lot energy. Mark Cavendish knows he has to do the same thing with his guys and it will come."
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