Cavendish finally underway

It has a been a full month now since the cycling season officially began in Australia at the Tour Down Under. The rider who won the most professional races in 2009 was sprinter Mark Cavendish. This time last year he had already won two stages of the Tour of Qatar and two stages of the Tour of California. These races along with Tirreno-Adriatico were used in preparation for his first attempt at winning Milan San Remo. After 298 kilometres of racing he succeeded in spectacular fashion, beating Heinrich Haussler by a few millimetres.

Cavendish is due to start his season on Sunday 21st February at the Ruta del Sol. Cavendish’s late start to the season is due to an abscess on a tooth which required plenty of rest and recovery. As a result this is now the latest he has ever started his season which will certainly have an affect on his ability to defend his Milan San Remo crown.  It will be five and a half months since his last professional race at the Tour of Missouri last September. By the time he gets to Tirreno-Adriatico he will have raced 33% of the amount of days he raced by that stage last year.

The Ruta del Sol (or Vuelta a Andalucía as it’s also called) is a five-day stage race which interestingly was once won by his mentor Erik Zabel on his way to winning Milan San Remo in 1997. However, winning the race overall will not be on Cavendish’s to-do list, but even though it is his first race this year winning stages should not be beyond him as Oscar Freire and Borut Bozic seem to be the only other decent sprinters on the startlist. While Cavendish has been sidelined, the world’s other best sprinters have been busy. Boonen, Chicchi, Boassan Hagen, Petacchi, Bennati and even Freire and McEwen have all been victorious already this season.But perhaps most importantly of all, Cavendish’s team mate André Greipel has racked up six victories.

HTC-Columbia will now have an important decision to make on whether to put the full weight of the team behind Cavendish at La Primevera. Team manager Rolf Aldag has indeed hinted that due to the fact that Cavendish has already won Milan San Remo that the more important goals for the season will be the Green jersey at the Tour and the World Road Race Championships in September. Perhaps backing Greipel for the win would be a wiser decision. He is obviously on fantastic form and if he had the the whole team behind him he would certainly be considered one of the favourites for the race. Although it must be noted that the German has never ridden a monument classic before.

Cavendish was blessed last season, having been involved in so many bunch sprints he was never involved in a crash, allowing him to stay fit and take victories throughout the whole season. This year, although not due to a crash, is the first time since he burst on to the sprint scene that he has had to sit things out. Perhaps this could be a sign that he won’t have things all his own way in the sprints again this season. The main reason why Cavendish avoided any bunch pileups throughout the course of last season was because he was always at the front of the bunch where the chances of crashing are much lower. This was due to his superior lead out train at HTC-Columbia. But there have many personnel changes at Cavendish’s team over the winter which will affect his team’s dominance of the lead outs.

The most notable loss from Cavendish’s lead out is undoubtedly George Hincapie. The sprinter had this to say about the American “In every single race that I was with him, he was part of me winning.” Plenty of established experienced riders like Greg Henderson, Kim Kirchen, Marcus Burghardt and Hincapie himself have all left HTC-Columbia. Team director Bob Stapleton has done his best to replace them bringing in the likes of Hayden Roulston, Lars Ytting Bak, Matthew Goss and the Velits brothers.

One can’t help but look at this year’s squad and feel that it lacks the heavyweight punch of last year’s equivalent. Add to this the fact that Cavendish’s time off the bike due to his tooth problems will have put a dent in the team’s plans to practice lead outs for the Manxman. No doubt the new riders who will aim to lead Cavendish to the line will need time to slot in effectively. Since Stapleton took over the old T-Mobile team and converted it to an American outfit there has been plenty of roster changes. In fact, despite Cavendish’s relatively young age he is now one of the longest serving riders on the team. Only André Greipel, Michael Rogers and Frantisek Rabon have been part of the team longer.

With the apparent return to form of sprinters like Boonen, McEwen, Freire and Petacchi along with the emergence of young riders like Farrar and Boassan Hagen, this years sprints should be more hotly contested than ever. The dent that’s been put into HTC-Columbia’s lead out train will encourage other teams to improve on their own sprint trains. Team Sky have already shown that they are eager to prove what they can do at the front end of the bunch. Cavendish has said in the past “We have the best guys in the world in our train. It’s easily forgotten that I was winning without a train. I don’t need a train to win. When I didn’t have a train, I was winning”. Having been shepherded to the line so effectively all last year, he may find that he will need to prove this all over again. At the Ruta del Sol, Cavendish will be aiming to keep up his amazing record of having won a stage in every stage race he’s entered since Tirreno-Adriatico two years ago. It’s been Cavendish’s teeth that have hampered him so far this season, it will be the teething problems of his new look team which will determine whether Cavendish can be as dominant this year as he was in 2009.

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