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On yesterday’s second stage of the Tour of Britain, Australia’s Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) sprinted to victory in Llandudno – his first individual win of the 2014 season. Jane Aubrey caught up with Renshaw ahead of the Tour of Britain to find out what the past few seasons have been like for the man from Bathurst.
It’s been a long season for Mark Renshaw. By the time he completes the Tour of Britain being raced this week, the Australian with the reputation as the ‘world’s best lead-out man’ will have 88 days of racing under his belt. It will bring his first year with Omega Pharma-QuickStep to an end with Renshaw admitting the season has had its fair share of challenges. This is despite the return of his and Mark Cavendish’s winning ways netting 12 victories to date, including a stage win yesterday at the Tour of Britain.
“This year’s not been great – for Cav especially – and in turn that means not a great year for me,” he says. “It kind of all started going pear-shaped after San Remo when he got sick and I continued to race. Then normally when I would have my break I had to return to racing with Cav so I never got to shut it down and the ball’s just kept rolling.”
Season 2014 has marked the return of the 31-year-old to his preferred role as main man to Cavendish, following a two-year hiatus where Renshaw tried his hand as a marquee sprinter at Rabobank/Belkin. It’s a working relationship that began in 2009 at Columbia-Highroad, and ended when the team dissolved at the end of 2011 with Renshaw deciding not to follow Cavendish to Team Sky.
With that news, Cavendish told The Times that: “It was the equivalent of coming home and my girlfriend saying, ‘I’m leaving you.’” The split cut deep, it was clear, but so was the knowledge and understanding that Renshaw needed to go it alone. Despite the pair’s rich and rewarding history, it hasn’t been as simple as putting the show back on the road.
“It took us a couple of months to find our groove,” Renshaw admits. “It definitely didn’t click straight away. When it all fell apart at HTC, it didn’t end the way we’d all envisaged it. It was over quite quickly and we all dispersed.
“So it took a couple of months [this year] to smooth things out in the racing side of things, to get used to each other again but once that happened, I think he’s been really happy having me back and I’ve enjoyed being back in that role.”
When Renshaw speaks of Cavendish, the Manxman’s absolute professionalism is what dominates. There is a clear respect between the two. The Australian is happy to tell anyone that Cavendish is almost misunderstood given what is projected through the media, some of which, he believes, is a result of tall poppy-syndrome. Admitting Cavendish is “hard to explain”, what Renshaw reiterates is this: Cavendish expects to win. That in turn motivates everyone in the team. He’s a clear leader both in the bunch and as a teammate. And that’s a rarity.
Reunited at the Volta ao Algarve, Renshaw assisted Cavendish to his first win of the season on Stage 5. They would earn another at Tirreno-Adriatico but Renshaw believes it was only at the Presidential Tour of Turkey in late April that the pair returned to their best.
“It allowed Cav to get the confidence back and it was probably the first race where he started to really get in form and win quite easily,” Renshaw says. Cavendish won four stages on the way to the Points Classification. (Scrub through to 1:11 in the video below to see the final 2km of stage 2 of the 2014 Tour of Turkey.)
Renshaw’s 11th year as a professional on the road has not all been about bidding farewell to his own chances to win, despite signing back up for his ‘day job’ working for Cavendish. A dramatic crash ahead of the finish line in the opening stage of the Tour de France in Harrogate left Cavendish with a dislocated collarbone and Renshaw as Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s designated sprinter.
“It was pretty weird after the first day,” Renshaw explains. “I spent 12 months focusing on working for Cav and then to get there and have better opportunities than I did the previous two years as a leader was a big shock.”
Renshaw finished the Tour de France with six top-10 finishes, five of those in the top five. He walked away with the knowledge that he was good, just not quite good enough.
“Tactically in the finish I was just missing those final few things that you need to win – timing and most of all, confidence,” Renshaw believes. “I hadn’t focused on that. The stage that Griepel won [Stage 6 to Reims] if I had done a better sprint that day I think I would have challenged for the win. That was probably the best chance I had the whole Tour.”
What pleased Renshaw was the support that he received from the team over the three weeks.
“The team had to try and make the most of what we had, there was a good group of riders to lead out,” Renshaw says pragmatically. “Some guys believed I could win, others maybe less but the directeurs gave me a good chance. The guys committed to me on a few days for the win. It was a great opportunity but also it would have been great if I had have had a bit more of a heads up of what was to happen. I could have made more of it.”
Much was made of the perceived power struggle for sprint leadership at Rabobank/Belkin between Renshaw and Dutchman Theo Bos. What is certain is that while the Australian was signed as a sprinter, it was never expected that he emulate the feats of the likes of Cavendish or Greipel. The extra firepower that Renshaw brought to the sprint team did create expectation, however, and when the team couldn’t deliver, pressure grew.
“Obviously being Dutch, the team preferred him to win sometimes,” Renshaw says of Bos. “They liked me to commit every now and then to helping him. So there were probably a few chances that I missed out on by helping him. But also the first year I went to the Tour, although I had no help, I still had the opportunity. On the flipside, Theo always had me to help him on the races that were objectives for the team. It would have been nice to have a rider like myself helping. He had a much better chance of winning with myself and Graeme Brown there.”
Renshaw has no hesitation in admitting that it’s a lot ‘easier’ to be racing for a team like Omega Pharma-QuickStep where stage wins are notched up “every couple of days.” However, his reputation tagged ‘world’s best’ is coupled with the weight of expectation.
“It’s really different,” Renshaw says. “In races where I’m there to lead out, I’m expected to do the best. In races where I’m sprinting for the win, I don’t know what other people think but it looks like they’re just happy if I can be around the mark. Nobody expects me to win.
“I said at the Tour that if I did win two stages then I probably wouldn’t be leading out; next year I would go back to sprinting because obviously I’d been doing something wrong,” he laughs before continuing. “The fact is I’m a better lead-out rider.
“There’s more pressure leading out than sprinting for the win.”
Much can change over two years of a professional cyclist’s career. For Renshaw, he believes the move to Rabobank in 2012, while also giving him the opportunity to see if he had what it takes to win, in turn made him a better, stronger bike rider. Renshaw’s heavy racing load this season, which has meant diminished training time, has also added to better endurance.
“The years at HTC, I was always in trouble keeping up with Cav in the big mountains,” he says. This year I’ve always been a step ahead of him or close to him, which makes life easier for me. There’s no use having a lead-out man that can’t stay with his sprinter.”
While the Renshaw-Cavendish combination is tried and tested, there is also room for improvement, with the former explaining that added raw power for the finish is his next big objective ahead of the 2015 season. There is also hope that the addition of Fabio Sabbatini will add a certain dynamism to the lead-out for Cavendish. Fortunes in sprinting are forever changing and Renshaw notes Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) and Andre Griepel (Lotto Belisol) as the big improvers over the last few years. Dominance, like that shown by Cavendish, essentially forces change by rivals.
“They both have tactics that they like to use,” says Renshaw, a keen student of the dark art of racing at speed. He misses very little detail and is unafraid to voice his opinions.
“Kittel is the other strongest sprinter alongside Cav – their tactics are often, wait, wait, wait and then they’ll come at the last minute. We saw in the Tour that in a couple of stages they put [Tom] Veelers in behind Kittel [ed. to prevent anyone getting on his wheel] which is, ah… I think this move belongs in amateur racing. The best sprinters should sprint. We don’t need to see tactics like that.
“Some of the tactics I’m not a big fan of from the other teams but in saying that, they’ve been successful and they were successful in the Tour.”
Of course, everyone is getting a far better view of what’s actually going on in sprint finishes with the ever-increasing use of on-board cameras in the sport of cycling. Renshaw supports their use for the most part, agreeing that it’s giving the public far better understanding of the ebbs and flows of the peloton. At the same time, he calls for a clear consideration when it comes to how the footage is used by the UCI.
“They just need to now work out what the implications are and whether or not they’ll use this footage in judging racing,” Renshaw says. “It’s going to be alright if it’s all released later and nothing can be done after the race. If everybody starts analysing whether ‘he’s a good sprinter’, and ‘he’s clean’ and ‘he rides straight’, then it’s going to be difficult. I hope not because there are already enough limitations on the racing. Sprinting’s sprinting. If they want us to sprint in lanes then we’ll go and sprint in lanes. I would prefer that they review the safety of races.”
In closing out his season, Renshaw can also look back on the fact that after 10 years in the selection wilderness, he was back in the green and gold representing Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The timing, just following the Tour de France, he believes, proved serendipitous.
His previous omissions from the national team, particularly at the 2011 World Championships where Matt Goss finished half a wheel behind Cavendish in the finale, were something he took personally and believed was politically motivated with a Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif at the helm. Renshaw, after so many years of putting his hand up and being denied, felt he had somewhat of a point to prove.
At this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Renshaw finished the best of the Australians in fifth place, 4:29 behind winner Geraint Thomas.
Proud to pull the green and gold on again and hopefully get a chance down the road. That race was hard but I loved all of it.
— Mark Renshaw (@Mark_Renshaw) August 3, 2014
Thanks to the boys and staff for today's race. 5th place, I had no luck getting a flat whilst in the break with the winners. That's racing.
— Mark Renshaw (@Mark_Renshaw) August 3, 2014
“I definitely wanted to perform,” he says. “It was nice to be picked again to represent Australia. It was a young, motivated group of riders and looking forward for Australia it’s pretty exciting,” Renshaw enthuses before continuing.
“Unfortunately I had no luck that day and it’s a shame because I believe I had the legs to be on the podium. Geraint was by far the strongest in the race but with a little bit more luck it would have been a different result.”
Making little secret of his support for Brad McGee’s turn heading up the national squad, Renshaw, at the end of 2014, is even more driven to succeed in what lies ahead – supporting a team or otherwise.
“It motivates me for the future to maybe make a bit of an objective of the world titles and try those things,” he states. “Especially in 2016 with the Qatar Worlds. I’m happy to go there.”
About the author
Jane Aubrey is the former editor of Cyclingnews Australia and is currently the Chief Communications Officer at Drapac Professional Cycling. You can follow Jane at Twitter here.