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 saw the Manxman take the World Road Race Championships, and with it the right to wear the champion's rainbow jersey with behind-the-scenes planning from Ellingworth that Cavendish said was "perfect". But, as Ellingworth tells The Independent: "The actual project was about the Olympic road race. The worlds was part of that project."
"We only called it Project Rainbow Jersey because some magazine reporters came along and saw the lads out training and they kind of pushed us into calling it that."
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 quite broad, you can go right or left so you don't get blocked... but it was like, 'bloody hell, this is pretty much spot on'. Exactly how we were going to win races was written three years ago."
Ellingworth recognises the worlds and the Olympics are "totally different races". Yet he believes a large part of Britain's dominance of the worlds –and it is to be hoped, the Olympics – evolved from his motivational work among the GB riders.
"It [winning the worlds] was about forging the belief they could do it. I believed in the lads, said they had the horsepower to do the job. It was about getting them to think 'let's go for this'." Fast forward nine months and there are fresh reasons to be motivated: four out of the five Olympic road-race starters (Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and Cavendish) have just won Tour stages – the fifth, Ian Stannard, did not take part.
One of Ellingworth's important early tasks was motivating riders even though they know ultimately their chances of making the final cut were limited. That task, initially with a largish group of 14 or 15 riders in a geographically scattered sport such as road-racing offers other, special challenges. "That's 80 per cent of what I do – how do you get them to buy into it, when they're all in different teams, all in different countries. [Keeping them in touch] was the first challenge. So we would do all sort of things, like send out newsletters after each major race.
"In the letters you'd try to encourage them, but also make sure they knew about when we'd do training camps, who'd had a crash so they could maybe ring each other up, what information I needed from the lads and how many [qualifying] points we'd need from the next race for getting as many riders as possible to the worlds."
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, ever the motivator, 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. We're going to be relatively strong. 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 did not make the initial cut.
As for Cavendish, Ellingworth says: "Everybody talks about him 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."
Ellingworth says Cavendish will, as ever, exploit his status of superfavourite to the full, right down to his body gestures and the way he walks before the race starts: "He knows everybody's going to be watching him, too, so he plays on that, there's a lot of mind games with him."
Although on paper the tumultuous, ultra-tough racing he envisages will not favour Cavendish, Ellingworth says that: "The thing is, though, when he's on the back foot, he works better sometimes. So we shall see. The lads all know how hard it is, they're not going to underestimate it."
"But the great thing is that thanks to the worlds we don't have to buy the lads into the idea [of winning]. They know they can do it."
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