Mark Cavendish's 2012 road to the Tour de France and Olympic Games starts here in Qatar's exotic (for cycling) desert landscape tomorrow – with much more than just winning as many stages as possible at stake for the Manxman.
For the last five years with the defunct HTC outfit, the American team's train of riders protected Cavendish to perfection in the frantic, 60km/h build-up to the bunch sprints that are the Manxman's speciality.
This year's six-day, 734-kilometre Tour of Qatar, will now see the Briton make his maiden outing with his new squad, Team Sky. And expectations could not be higher than to see whether Sky manage to emulate – or perhaps do better – than HTC in guiding Cavendish into a winning position.
Cavendish is more than able to win sprints alone and unaided, as he has proved on countless occasions. But as he put it so often about his HTC team-mates in the past, "without these guys, I can still win. But with them, I can't lose".
With that in mind, Sky have been drilling Cavendish's new train of lead-out riders relentlessly in Mallorca over the last month. But training is one thing and racing – particularly in Qatar's frequently blustery conditions, which can easily fracture a peloton – is another.
"We have no doubt at all about the speed of the team [in a finale]," team coach Rod Ellingworth recently told specialist website cyclingnews.com. "It's just the final line-up of the team [in the sprints]. [Sky riders] like Jeremy [Hunt], Michael Barry, Bernie Eisel, they've got a lot of experience."
However, as reigning world road-race champion and cycling's top sprinter, his rivals will give Cavendish and Sky minimal margin or time for possible error or experimentation; the prestige of beating a rider with 75 wins and 20 Tour de France stages to his name is too great for that.
"It's the same through the generations, if somebody's the top you want to beat them because if you do that it pretty much means you're going to win," explains veteran Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen, whose winning style made him an early role model for Cavendish.
In the nineties and early noughties, McEwen said, "Everybody wanted to beat [sprint stars Erik] Zabel or Mario Cipollini or Alessandro Petacchi. It's like – get in line, you're one of many over the last two generations who wants to beat the best. It's normal."
That said, though, McEwen concedes that for Cavendish the pressure will be higher, "when you're world champion because everybody is going to look at your first performance and judge you straight away".
However, Australian Mark Renshaw – until this year the last, and arguably the most important, man in Cavendish's HTC train, said: "It's his first race of the year. And one of the most beautiful things to do, is come out in the world champion's jersey and win the first day. I think we'll see him in good form; he'll be hard to beat."
Cavendish has certainly shone at Qatar in the past. In his season debut race in 2009, his most consistent year to date, he took two stages there. The Briton has said he is more than keen to repeat 2009 and hit the ground running in 2012 – although perhaps not quite like earlier this week, when he had a minor training accident, coming off his bike. His bike and shoes were write-offs, fortunately Cavendish suffered only light bruising.
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