Tour de France: Cavendish eager to prove that the streets of London are paved with gold in first medal chance
A week today, Mark Cavendish will be spearheading Great Britain's first chance of a Olympic gold in his home nation's Games. And in a race which is most likely to end in a bunch sprint, the Sky rider and reigning World Champion is the odds-on favourite.
However, the Briton is well aware that he will be a marked man, and as he discusses the profile of the Olympics route and Britain's plans for gold, he says a crucial element of it all is that the five-man British team that will stand at the Mall start next Saturday morning is designed to cover all sorts of contingencies. Not just him winning, as was the case in his previous biggest one-day triumph, when he took Britain's first male World Championships road-race title in 47 years. This time, his country comes before even the tiniest shred of personal ambition.
"The plan is to win gold for Great Britain. If I'm not in the form that I want to be in, then we'll go with another option, not like the Worlds where we set out with a plan and there was no plan B," Cavendish says. "We will have plan B and plan C.
The biggest obstacle, on paper, to Cavendish storming up the Mall for gold is the mid-race Box Hill, the mile and a quarter climb tackled nine times on the Olympic race. But if he seems to go over it far more smoothly than expected in a week's time, bear in mind there has been years of planning and hard work behind it.
GB team sources claim that Cavendish has been chipping away at his maximizing his climbing performance since 2009 and the last part of the process was to lose four kilos earlier this season. Cavendish has already profited from that, pre-Tour, to take his first ever stage race overall win in the Netherlands last month. And some superb support rides for Wiggins both on the flatter stages of the Tour and on the early chunks of the mountains not to mention bunch sprint stage wins in the Giro and Tour, confirm he has got the balance right.
He highlighted this yesterday by taking Stage 18, his second victory of this Tour, and his 22nd career Tour stage win – the same number as Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade.
"I have to climb anyway at the Tour of Italy, but... all my efforts have been geared towards that." Cavendish says. "And Box Hill, I know it backwards, so I'm spot on for that."
As part of his drive to improve his climbing – and it's also a sign of how seriously Cavendish is taking what could be his biggest-ever sporting challenge on home soil – he has started paying close attention to data, working closely with Sky's Head of Performance Support, Australian Tim Kerrison in the process.
"For the first time ever this year, I've ben really looking at numbers and data whilst training. Rather than living like an old-school professional, I've been seeing how many watts I produce, stuff like that."
"Tim is really good, Bradley Wiggins talks about him like he's a god. Tim is the only sports scientist I'll sit with and ask questions. He's perfect at giving me that information. He doesn't talk to you like he's a robot."
Assuming Box Hill is conquered, the next challenge will be the run-in towards London, which Cavendish has not yet had a chance to look at except for in last year's Olympic test event – which he won. And it is there that there he knows he will need maximum support from his team-mates.
"The run-in is fast and narrow, which is why there were a lot of crashes in the test event, positioning is really important at that point if the pack strings out."
Then there is the sprint itself and Cavendish reveals that he has used his West End shopping trips to take close looks at it.
"When we drive back from shopping in Harrods or whatever, we'll go down the Mall and see that finish."
Looked at from a technical point of view, Cavendish says "The sprint is on a massive, massive wide road. 20 riders wide. From the last kilometre onwards, it's sheer speed, the fastest man wins, basta."
He agrees that positioning, therefore, is not so important as it would be if the road was narrower, which could be vital if Cavendish's support team is used up bringing back dangerous breaks or even, if necessary, towing him back up to the front peloton should he lost contact on the numerous ascents of Box Hill or be blocked by a crash.
By the time the front group has been reduced to a peloton of 50 or 60 riders as expected, Cavendish may be alone, or at best backed by David Millar or Wiggins, both of whom have done lead outs for Cavendish and/or team-mates in the past. Wiggins's mission in the World Championships though was to keep up an insanely high pace in the final kilometre to ensure there were no last-minute breakaways and Cavendish did the sprint alone.
Assuming his form is as solid as he would like it to be – and even the best of riders can fall ill in the run-up to a race – what does he think his chances are? Cavendish smiles, a huge broad grin, and answers "If there's a sprint there, I'll win it."
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