Having taken three wins in this year’s Giro d’Italia, despite suffering just as many crashes, Mark Cavendish looks as strong as he ever has.
But with his greatest challenges - the Tour de France and Olympic road race - still to come, his first two weeks in a Grand Tour with Team Sky suggest that he needs greater support. Quite simply, his new team is weaker than his former team, HTC-Highroad, and is yet to establish a foolproof winning formula. Twice last week they failed to deliver Cavendish to the line.
In stage 11 they thundered through the streets of Montecatini-Terme in Tuscany only to lose control within sight of the finish when lead-out man Geraint Thomas’ pedal hit the ground, causing his wheel to jump and costing their sprinter a stage win.
Then, in stage 13, Team Sky was overpowered by Orica-GreenEdge in the final metres. Despite the disintegration of his lead-out, Cavendish was able to make do and take the stage. A win is still a win, but it was far from the textbook delivery the perfectionist has grown accustomed to.
Last year Cavendish’s lead-out train was the best in the world, but at the end of the season his former team dissolved and those that led him to victory splintered in multiple directions. In the ongoing Giro d’Italia, the first Grand Tour of the season, the united force of last year now stands divided – each rider a top-flight competitor in their own right.
Lars Bak, who used to close the gap on breakaways, has been the one making the moves and he claimed victory in stage 12 doing just that. Matt Goss, who used to lead Cavendish until 800m to go, has been one of his main competitors with a stage win and several days in the points jersey under his belt. And Mark Renshaw, who delivered the world champion within 200m of the finish line, now aims to claim stage wins for himself.
But one former team HTC-Highroad rider remains faithful. Bernhard Eisel, like he did last year, coordinates Cavendish’s team and ramps the pace 1.5km from the finish. “Bernie is one of the best in the world at positioning the team on the road when they are all lined out behind him," says team coach Rod Ellingworth.
During stage 13, the Austrian led the Team Sky train when it was at its most dominant. For 34 seconds he kept Cavendish in the perfect position, as he hammered down over 1200 watts at up to 64kph. But as Eisel handed the lead over to Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas, they struggled to keep their man ahead of his competitors.
The Giro d’Italia is the only Grand Tour in which Cavendish is yet to win the points jersey. Having decided to stick out the mountains when other sprinters dropped out to save their legs for later races, it looks like Cavendish intends to clear up his unfinished business in the Giro.
Though he has proved himself to be a league above the rest, the Briton has the world of cycling trying to crack him. In both the Tour de France and the Olympics, the pressure will be higher and the attacks fiercer. Team Sky will need a full-firing engine to keep their man on top. It’s not yet clear whether they will be able to deliver.