The future for sprinting

Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish’s contractual future was finally settled last week when he signed a contract with Team Sky, which was duly announced yesterday. I gather Sky sent him a formal contract last July just after the Tour but the world’s fastest man did rush to sign it.

The ease with which he wins is impressive. I’m trying to avoid hagiography but all the same, when we see black and white images of the greats of the sport from the past, Cavendish is on his way to joining them with sprint wins. But will he have it all it all so easy in 2012? Several factors suggest sprinting might be more open. Let’s take a look.

First, there’s are many new sprinters coming through. In the last two seasons Cavendish has been rivalled by André Greipel, Alessandro Petacchi and Tyler Farrar. Greipel is still quite literally a force with eight wins this year. But Petacchi is 37 and has only three wins this year whilst Farrar has five. Instead we can look to others.

The first candidate is Marcel Kittel who has 15 wins this season, meaning he’s won more in quantity than Cavendish with 13 wins. Not bad for a neo-pro. The German can pump out 1800 watts. Next year the German will find a squad forming around him with the new I4TI team, formerly Skil-Shimano. That said Kittel is a big lad and will struggle on hilly courses when Cavendish can get by.

One who won’t suffer on the hills is Peter Sagan. The Slovak is deadly on almost any terrain, capable of winning bunch sprints but he rivalled Damiano Cunego in the Tour de Suisse early this year. He might not go head to head with Cavendish all the time but on a hillier day he’s a candidate for the win.

Andrea Guardini
The 2012 vintage should be even better

There’s Andrea Guardini too. The Italian neo-pro has 11 wins this year but he’s on the Farnese Vini squad so we won’t see him in the Tour de France. If Greipel and Sagan are power riders, Guardini is almost a clone of Cavendish, capable of lightning-fast acceleration and exploiting a very aero position on the bike. Indeed he has said he is influenced by Cavendish’s style and would like to emulate him.

There’s a crop of more riders. In Italy alone there’s Sacha Modolo (Colnago-CSF) who is two years younger than Cavendish, Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Manuel Belleti, on his way to Ag2r. Don’t forget Russian Dennis Galimzyanov. Perhaps Cavendish won’t lose much sleep yet alone sprints but these guys should make the finishes more exciting.

As well as individual rivals, there will be Greenedge. The squad could align a team composed entirely of sprinters for a race. Tactically we’ll see how they do this, obviously you don’t put nine sprinters in a race as you need guys to help fetch bottles and more. But they could try swamping the finish with five riders for example. I’m interested to see if Goss focuses on the sprints or becomes a more versatile classics rider.

There there are others who might not have won big this year but will be contenders. Take Mark Renshaw, once Cavendish’s perfect team mate and now a rival with Rabobank although I suspect he might be helping Michael Matthews, Theo Bos and even Lars Boom up their game too. Daniele Bennati seems to have rediscovered some form and luck this year. Garmin-Cervélo’s Heinrich Haussler had a blank year but perhaps he’ll go in search of sprint wins in 2012 to secure some wins?

Plus there’s internal rivalry at Team Sky. Let’s not stir the pot too much but riders like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have legitimate claim to support in stage races, meaning wagons from the sprint train will be swapped for mountain support, although the likes of Geraint Thomas and Edwald Boasson-Hagen could arguably do both. Plus team mates like Ben Swift and Chris Sutton might fancy a go too. Either way we won’t see a whole team at his service in the grand tours.

And I could go on. World U-23 champion Arnaud Demarre will join FDJ and he could be the sprinter the French have been waiting for to top the likes of Romain Feillu, Jimmy Casper and Anthony Ravard. Rüdiger Selig could be a neo-pro with Radioshack-Nissan after impressing as a stagiaire. And more.

It’s testimony to Cavendish’s dominance that you end up reviewing sprinting talent against him. The relative ease of his wins suggests he’ll bank many wins in 2012 regardless of what team or bike he rides and Sky will offer him a well-drilled team; perhaps the biggest risk is that his celebrity gets in the way of training.

Nevertheless is his career be at the high water mar. Can it get any better? That’s hard to say. For now if it’s been impressive to watch, too often the result of a sprint has been a foregone conclusion but new names are coming through and this should make the sprints more exciting.

37 thoughts on “The future for sprinting”

  1. Degenkolb, no?

    It will be interesting if Renshaw is deployed to help Matthews and Bos win because he would have got more victories by leading out Cav. May be it’s the other way around or money was a big factor in the deal. Whatever be the case, as you pointed out the sprints will be more interesting next season.

  2. Agree with the assessment that 2012 will throw up some challenges for Cav. As a neutral spectator, I’m delighted with the prospect of sprint finishes that promise more than a Cavendish parade. And there’s every chance it will raise Cav to even higher levels of performance. Bring it on!

    Thought you might have mentioned Degenkolb though?

  3. I think the next step in his career is looking towards cobbles – now he has his Green & Rainbow jerseys moving towards difficult classics that end in a selective gallop could be a step towards a 30 something Cav having a go at Roubaix/Flanders.

  4. The most interesting move was Renshaw’s. As Ankush points out, maybe it had to do with money. (Ankush is also correct that Degenkolb is worth a separate mention). However, I just don’t see Renshaw as being competitive as a finisher. He’s simply not as fast as the very fastest men; he is blessed with tactical sense, but does not have the ability to lay down the hammer in the same way as the top guys. If he is simply to be a leadout man for Rabobank’s several fast men, it might seem that he has gone from being the lead-out man to the #1 to being the leadout man to a not-particularly-spectacular cadre of sprinters. Still, I understand the desire to rebrand oneself: until now, Renshaw is only every mentioned as Cav’s leadout man, regardless of who else he might lead out or what he might accomplish on his own. It is unpleasant to be pigeonholed, no matter how fast the pigeon or how comfortable the hole.
    All of this said, while this is a well-written article, the fact of the matter is, it will be at least half a decade (and perhaps a full decade at the outside) before we have to have serious discussion about the world’s greatest sprinter, barring major accident or freak occurrence (God forbid it). Cav is not the most powerful (in terms of wattage) but he is the fastest – meaning he owes more of his speed to aerodynamics (which matter even more at sprint speeds (low 40s mph) than at time trial speeds (low 30s mph) – in fact, drag is nearly 2X at 43mph than at 32mph, but it is always talked about more at TT time than at sprint time) than other top sprinters. Indeed, Cav’s sprint position is unique – he nearly scrapes his nose on his front wheel, creating a near-perfect wedge that is very, very aero indeed. This is an advantage in consistency: how tired you are at the end of a race probably affects your sprint power output more than your position. Thus, Cav is more able to be consistent after a long race (c.f. 2009 Milan San-Remo, when he was too far behind Heinrich Haussler to have had any logical chance of winning – although that is just what he did). This will also favor Cav as he ages – again, I imagine age saps more in terms of wattage than in terms of aerodynamics.
    Cav also has unbelievable instincts for racing. He knows which wheel to follow. He knows which side of the road to be on. He finds the tiniest gaps to get through. He had no business winning the rainbow jersey; we was boxed in 500m from the line, and should by all rights have finished 12th or something. But he found daylight, having been within 5cm of the right curb for most of the last 3km of the race, and then turned on the juice at just the right time. Any sooner, and Goss would have caught him. Any later, and he would have stayed boxed in. These instincts – the patience not to jump too soon, the decisiveness not to wait too long, the bike handling, the sniffing out of the tiniest openings, the ability to stay on the wheel of a leadout man – be it Renshaw, Goss, or whoever comes next – none of these things will be surrendered with age. The tiny fraction he might lose in reaction time will be more than made up for with even more experience winning in any and all sorts of situations.
    Prediction for next year’s season for Cav: slow start (this has happened each of the last two years), 2 stages in the Giro before withdrawing after Stage 12, 5 stages including Paris plus the green jersey in the Tour, the Olympic race, and 3 stages plus the points jersey in the Vuelta. He will race Milan San-Remo but won’t win (too early in a season in which he wants to peak in July), but he will get the monkey off his back and take Paris-Tours for good measure.

  5. Cav will have access to a great train though. Even assuming the squad is split for Grand Tours to provide support for Wiggins/Froome, it’s still likely he’ll have help from EBH, Thomas, Swift, Apollonio, Eisel et al.

  6. Ankush/PJ: Degenkolb, yes. There’s always one name missing in these lists. I did think of him but momentarily thought he’d be playing leadout for Kittel but I think he’ll have his day too. His win in the Dauphiné was tactically perfect and showed big power.

    On the subject check out Ankush’s blog for a take on the sport from India, click on his name above.

    jkeltgv: we’ll see. It means going from the near-certainty of a sprint win to the much reduced chance of battling Boonen, Cancellara, Gilbert and many other options.

    Doug: yes. I’ve covered Cavendish’s position in here before. It’s not just aero, it is efficient as he uses his back to lock himself in position like a track sprinter, he doesn’t bob and bounce his hips.

    Raouligan: I know and I’ve little time for him until he drops the “injustice” claim. His approach to the media and sport is probably worth a separate piece alone.

    Adi: it can work. But the unexpected can crop up, injury for example. It’ll be interesting to see how the team manages it. It’s as much a test for the DSs as the riders.

    936ADL: thanks!

  7. Interesting post. Very much looking forward to seeing how Guardini and Kittel develop.

    I think perhaps we must all be careful of making to much out of Froome/Wiggins. Brad is still the senior member, still number 1 in the team, and is a world top 10 rider, and a silver medalist time triallist. I’d say he still calls the shots.

    So, as I am feeling outlandish this morning, here’s a provisional Team Sky TdF team for 2012:

    Bradley Wiggins
    Chris Froome
    Xabier Zandio
    Rigo Uran
    Richie Porte
    Christian Knees
    Edvald Boasson Hagen
    Bernie Eisel
    Mark Cavendish


  8. What about the sprint train that cav wants in flat stage could also be used by froome and Wiggins to up the pace and try to lose the other gc hope. We saw that in stage 15 if i remember well in tdf, flat stage, bunch sprint assured but because it was windy and gc hope were scared of a split, they stayed at the front with the sprint trains. And we all know that wiggins can set the pace for a sprint train, froome could just hold in the back and the team could turn the last 30-40k into a TTT rather than a road stage. 2 bird in one shot.

  9. Interesting times lie ahead. As Wiggins said elsewhere, if he ends up riding the flat stages of the TdF in the front 10 places, then as a GC contender that is the best place for him to be (as stage 7 this year unfortunately demonstrated).

    Oh, and fasciniating stuff there Doug – good observations!

  10. While the sprinter’s mentioned are all without doubt amazing riders, there’s always an element of caution required when hypothesising that they will be knocking Cav off his perch.

    In 2009 and 2010, André Greipel was winning left, right, and centre. He was chomping at the bit to be given a chance in the biggest World Tour races. He himself, and many others, were cock-sure that he was going to murder Cav at every opportunity. But when it comes to the crunch, Cav has another 5 Tour wins, a Grio win, and the World Champs, as well as other wins this year.

    That’s not to say that they won’t be winning, of course. The key thing for me is will they be winning he majority of the top sprint events?

  11. With GreenEdge in their first year and on a steeping learning curve, Sky juggling GC and lead-out duties I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in breakway successes at next years tour.

    Didn’t EBH move away from HTC becuase he didn’t want to leadout Cav anymore?? or was that just a rumour.

    @Matt my thoughts are Froome and Wiggins won’t ride a GT again together as team mates, one will target the Tour the other will target the Giro or Vuelta.

  12. It’s not Cavendish’ fault he came along at a time when the competition for sprint wins was a bit thin…but thin it was. He’ll have to keep winning at his current rate for a full five more years to equal Mario Cipollini’s record of wins. To me it’s WAY too soon to talk about the “greatest of all time” especially this this guy…he’ll find it harder in 2012 to hold onto cars while wearing the rainbow jersey in LeTour. I hope the prestige matures him as a sportsman but I’m not holding my breath!

  13. Farrar was faster in almost every sprint in this year’s TdF. Problem was his train couldn’t compete and he had to start every sprint 2-3 wheels back.

    Hell, Sastre could’ve won bunch sprints with the HTC leadout.

    Sprints will be a different game without 6 HTC guys driving the front. Probably look a lot like this year’s World Champ’s. And Cav won’t win all of those.

  14. Which was the year that HTC did a TTT on the front of the Tour in cross-winds and split the peloton?

    I suspect that Sky would fancy their chances of doing that too.

  15. If a fan can name more sprinters than climbers, something is SERIOUSLY wrong about road racing, and I would invest my money in velodromes, which is where the future would be.

  16. @Rich, it was Wiggins who in 2008 said he left Columbia-Highroad because he didn’t want to be a lead out man for Cavendish, although to be fair their sponsorship situation was a bit up in the air as T-Mobile had just pulled the plug:

    ““They are building a team around Cav [Mark Cavendish] and rightly so. Columbia is going to be the Cav show and who can blame them.

    “But I don’t want to go to every race leading out Cav every day. It was good fun doing that for him at the Giro, but I don’t fancy that for the next few years. I still have ambitions myself.

    “The problem is that the stages when I can go for it and try to get in breaks are also the ones when Cav can win, and my job would be to be by his side.”

  17. It seems to me that you have to have an unaturally strong team to protect both a sprinter contending for the Sprint Jersey and an overall or GC contender. McEwen and Evans showed how it can go sour, as it did for Pharma Lotto. However I hypothesise that if any team can do it, it will be an Anglophone one. I am not prejudiced, nor an expert, but the English speaking teams seem to me to value team success highly. From the days of 7-11 in TDF TTT’s the English speakers seem to outshine the Romance language speaking teams in co-operative efforts. So I personally expect Sky to do well. GreenEdge ditto. And the Germans? Magic if they had a full team.

  18. Oh, and I forgot: ASO clearly (in my opinion) manipulate the Tour route in order to manipulate the results. If Cav/Sky dominate 2012 TDF watch out for a route in 2013 that favours the puncheurs, climbers – anyone but the pure sprinter.

  19. Well, the best way for a team to aim at both the Yellow and Green Jerseys is to do it with the same rider. Like Sean Kelly and Jalabert used to, and as Merckx and Hinault did achieve (and Contador last year in the Giro).

  20. @Richard Gadsden I believ it was Stage 5 2009. That was the Break that Contador missed and Armstrong made. HTC massed at the front about 2-3k’s before the road changed, and where the wind would change from a headwind to direct side wind. I think it was Hincapie, Rogers, Hansen, Eisel, Renshaw, Cav just gunning it after the turn.

    My favourite HTC moment. I think that was the best it ever came together for them.

    RIP Highroad – My first ProTour love 🙂

  21. The HTC TTT in the crosswind was indeed 2009 and was featured in ‘Chasing Legends’.

    Regarding what Wiggins said when he left HTC:
    >“…I still have ambitions myself. The problem is that the stages when I can go for it and
    > try to get in breaks are also the ones when Cav can win…”
    As I see it, in 2012 there will be much less conflict of interest. On flat stages Wiggins, as a GC contender, won’t have a chance of getting into breaks, he will just be looking to stay out of trouble and be in the first 20 or so riders on the road.

  22. I have now seen a few very confident comments about Cavendish hanging on to cars in the mountains – is there some actual evidence of this, or is it just based on comments from Hondo etc in the Tour? I’m not saying the absence of evidence makes it untrue, but it’s not clear to me why some are now repeating this as established fact – want to know if I’ve missed something. Also not clear to me that the rainbow jersey will make much difference – if no-one got footage/pictures this year when the knives were clearly out from some, either it’s not true or he’s (so far) too good at it?

  23. Quite agree about Wiggins and there being less conflict now – if anything the original quote’s a lot more measured and reasonable than the shorthand version which has often been paraphrased as “Wiggins doesn’t want to ride with Cav”.

  24. The news here in Italy during the Tour claimed Gilbert (not a whiner in my book) was one of those complaining about the Manx Missile holding onto the cars. I think Farrar did too but he was dismissed by a lot of pundits as a whiner. I seem to remember Hushovd complaining as well. Whether he did or not, it’ll be tougher to get away with while wearing the rainbow jersey next year and I find it hard to believe ANY of Cavendish’ competitors would make false claims of this nature.

  25. Thanks Larry. I guess what’s never clear to me, because it’s in one-line quotes here and there, is what they’re describing. Just a bit more of what everyone does from time to time, or some serious sustained towing? Not that I’m saying the former is OK, just that as a pretty uninformed follower, there seems to be plenty of sticky bottle around, which I have definitely seen on TV myself. And then I can see why there’s no specific pictures – I can follow a logic where others are saying Cavendish is always going back to the team car and just taking liberties. So is the debate about when that becomes properly unsporting, or do people think it needs totally stamping out, or are we talking about a whole other level of activity?

  26. @Drew – I think the holding-the-team-car issue is bigger than the sticky bottle move to get back into the peloton. The issue came up with Cavendish when it came down to making the time cut after the first big summit finish in the Giro this year where Contador attacked and won If the autobus of sprinters is suffering along together and you are just being auto-towed, that will raise hackles for sure when you’re the one winning sprint stages left and right.

  27. While I’m not saying this stuff doesn’t go on, I can’t imagine that someone of Cav’s profile could have got away with towing for kilometre after kilometre without *someone* managing to get a shot of him doing it. Chicchi and others got caught in the act.

    Are we supposed to take Francisco ‘In no way a cheat whatsoever’ Ventoso’s word?

  28. 2 thoughts:

    1/ I think you guys are underestimating the benefits of that HTC lead-out train. Yes, Cav is a very good sprinter and has gotten wins even when his leadout hasnt been spot on – but so has a 37-year old Ale-jet last year. My expectations are that Cav isnt going to win nearly as much this year: some of it due to the leadout and some of it b/c IMO, Sky simply doesn’t have the ability to run a championship team (it took all of 2010 to figure out that Wiggin’s training wasn’t up to mark? Really? In their search for marginal gains, they seem to be missing the forest for the trees, if I may be allowed to mix my metaphors)

    2/ If I am running Team Sky, I’d scrap the whole idea of Wiggins as a legit GC contender. I know the British media love to build up their boys (you’d think decades of getting whupped by the Aussies in the Ashes and the regular quarter-final exit in the soccer WC would have fixed this, but alas no), but the idea of Wiggins being a legit TdF contender is a laugh. He is good for spots #5-10, no more. Maybe that is good enough for the sponsors at home, but I’d think that the chance of getting actual wins with Cav would be more attractive. And my guess is that this is where Brailsford is going.

  29. Gr8 article!

    In an interview earlier this year both Cav and Boonen said they were getting ‘scared’ of sprint finishes because of the abundance of sprinters with the next generation coming into play, and how the new gen sprinters were a little reckless…or just extremely hungry to nock Cav off his perch!!! Since then I have been looking forward to more of such battles, and am delighted to see that the Grand Tours of 2012 appear to be much more sprint friendly, after a 2011 that seemed a little too one-sided on the seriously hilly side!!!

    Degenkolb was also my first thought! 🙂

    Didnt Renshaw mention in the press release for his joining Rabobank that he was looking forward to getting his own chance to win, so am not too sure if he will continue as a lead-out man for Bos et al, but more the other way round! Methinks the other sprinters at Rabobank will have to raise their game! Renshaw has a big point to prove in 2012!!!

    Baaaah, why do we have to wait so long for 2012?!!! SERENITY NOW!!!

  30. Fantastic article. I would have to agree with Guadzilla, Wiggins is not a GC contender as proven at this years’ Vuelta. Froome proved to be a better candidate and excellent GC rider for Sky. After Sky’s investment in Wiggins, it may be hard for the management to eat more crow right now, but we shall see next season

  31. Thank you for the article…the comments are also thought provoking.

    Now for something completely different (ct MPython) well not really…Question:

    “The first candidate is Marcel Kittel who has 15 wins this season, meaning he’s won more in quantity than Cavendish with 13 wins. Not bad for a neo-pro. The German can pump out 1800 watts. ”

    To what duration does this wattage apply? I note Cav is sometimes noted to put out 1500…presumably for the same (standard) duration??

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