If Mark Cavendish clinches the gold medal in Saturday's road race, it will not just be Britain's first triumph of the 2012 Olympic Games, it will also be testimony to the strength of a trainer-athlete relationship that has lasted nearly a decade, ever since Great Britain road coach Rod Ellingworth met Mark Cavendish at a British Cycling coaching weekend in early 2003. Cavendish, then 17, did not shine particularly on his bike, but he was enthusiastic enough – which was what counted to Ellingworth – to walk across the length of Manchester Velodrome car park just to say: "That was the best weekend I've ever had. Thank you." Neither knew it, but those few words marked a turning point in British cycling history.
For Mark Cavendish, Ellingworth was – and is – the "best coach in the world". Cavendish cut his teeth at the British Cycling Academy under Ellingworth's guidance and, for the last nine years, cycling's greatest Tour de France sprinter has always turned to the 39-year-old from Lincoln for support and consultation about strategies and planning.
When it came to a target as daunting as the Olympics, there was no question about who Cavendish would work with. Ellingworth's biggest triumph to date with Cavendish was Project Rainbow Jersey – which ended in the Manxman taking the World Road Race Championships, and with that the right to wear the champion's rainbow jersey, after behind-the-scenes planning from Ellingworth Cavendish described as "perfect". But, as Ellingworth says: "The actual project was about the Olympic road race. The worlds was part of that project."
At the centre of Rainbow Jersey is a powerpoint document that Ellingworth wrote back in 2009. "I read it after we won the worlds and was quite shocked at how detailed it was for each year through to the Olympics, it was like, 'This is pretty much spot on'. Exactly how we were going to win races was written three years ago."
In line with the "athlete empowerment" strategy that proved so successful with the GB track squad in Beijing, running the road squad has never been a one-way street with Ellingworth. "I told the lads the moment you feel that I'm not able to do my job … if you think you've got a cause for complaint, I'm giving you the authority to write and complain. Because I don't want this job if I can't do it."
With only five riders at the Olympics, rather than the eight at the worlds, there is far more limited margin for error. But Ellingworth puts a positive spin on this.
"It's actually the maximum number of riders possible. Only 10 teams have got five riders, all the rest have less. The race, though, makes it a little more challenging." It is one reason British riders with unproven ability to race over a full-length classic of 250 kilometres (156 miles) did not make the initial cut.
As for Cavendish, Ellingworth says: "Everybody talks about Mark as the key person. But, to be honest, I think we could win it with somebody else, too." Cavendish has already indicated that Britain will start the 244km Olympics race with more than one plan, and Ellingworth's deep knowledge of the sprinter and his form on the day will prove crucial in deciding whichever one they finally execute.
"You know when Mark is on it. The thing is he really loves racing, always, but there's some days when you know he's going to be really buzzing. And he's super-enthusiastic about the Games."
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