It's been a bumpy start to the season for Mark Cavendish, who has suffered nasty falls in both his races so far. The painful scrapes in the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Qatar, which finished last week, would have dented the confidence of lesser riders but the sprinter is patched up, repaired and brimming with excitement for the year ahead as he embarks on the Tour of Oman which begins with three bump-free stages, the first of which is today.
But it's not just the fact that the opening legs of this Middle Eastern race are so flat they could have been designed for him, it's the fact that Cavendish has got used to bouncing back – after a rocky start to last season. It is turning into as much his speciality as racking up the wins: a staggering 62 since turning pro in 2007. His mishaps were so frequent in the first six months of 2010 he had no choice.
"Part of the problem is I'm not Superman," Cavendish tells The Independent before the first stage of the Tour of Oman. "People expect and you don't deliver, they get disappointed. And you can't judge anybody on a couple of days performance. But if I could have the 2010 season all over again in 2011 – five stage wins in the Tour de France, three and the points jersey in the Vuelta [Tour of Spain], I would for sure. Right now I'm going well, it's just easier to be on good form now than suffering like I was this time last year [with a tooth infection]."
A pain-free Cavendish has spent the build-up to the season doing intensive track training in Manchester to polish his top-end speed, riding for 90-minute sessions at 60kmh behind a motorbike. He did this for four days solid. "If you're out on the roads training in winter, you end up 'mashing' [cycling jargon for pounding out a lot of miles with high gears] and you don't have that finesse you need for the sprints. But I've got it [this year], and I'm really noticing the difference."
An early win thanks to that high-intensity training, too, would ease the pressure on Cavendish – something he was unable to pull off until late March last year, with the ensuing – and unjustified – criticism obscuring the fact he'd been unwell.
"You always get knocks, but it was more frustrating because people who weren't qualified to be judging me were judging me. And I'd always said that my early season last year was going to be a bit hit and miss."
The only two goals missing from Cavendish's 2010 season, the Tour de France's points jersey and the World Championships are both back on his list, although he rates his chances in each differently.
"The green [points] jersey is difficult to predict because they've changed the way the points are awarded so we won't know how hard it will be to win until we see a detailed route. But it could work in my favour.
"Then I've already been to see the 2011 World Championships course in Denmark, when I was over there riding with a group from a charity. It's going to suit me," he adds.
It is a sign of Cavendish's optimism about the Worlds that he has beefed up his 2011 programme to include possible starts in all three major Tours (France, Italy and Spain). The idea of doing the Tour of Italy would be to enable Great Britain to amass points in the nations rankings, which in turn dictates the number of riders allowed for the World Championships.
There is no question as to who will be leading them, given how quickly Cavendish is progressing. None other than the great Eddy Merckx says: "He's going to end up being one of the true sprinting legends, perhaps the fastest ever."
Cavendish sees one key to achieving that goal, in and outside the Tour, as "not losing self-belief. When you're on a roll, you're on a roll, your team and you get confident and end up staying there. The biggest thing for me in the Tour de France last year was that even after I lost [in a sprint] in Reims, the team didn't lose faith in me, they went out and rode on the front on one of the longest days of the Tour." And he won.
For now it is the exotic Oman Tour. In just its second year, it is an interesting addition to the calendar. It features Omani sword-dancers at each stage launch which are in remote villages in the Oman interior; Then the peloton pounds past remote hill forts, mile-wide wadis and huge date-tree plantations, all below mountains topping out at 10,000 feet.
There are miles of well-surfaced empty roads without a spectator to be seen until the peloton hits a village when Omanis spill out to cheer in delight. It is a spectacle worthy of the Tour de France at his height.
The distances involved, and how the Omani race tackles them, too, are a new for the largely European-based peloton. There was a 300km flight before one stage in 2010, and this year the entire race (riders, transport and officials) will have a 90-minute speed boat transfer to one stage. They will then ride 202km on a circular route and then come back, again by sea, in time for dinner.
For Cavendish, what continues to drive him is the same as ever. "The focus to win. It's been there since I was a kid. Everybody said to do my best when I did sports, but that was never enough. I always had to be the best, too. If you strive for absolute perfection, you will come out on top."