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Mark Cavendish’s leadout man and roommate Mark Renshaw has spoken of the Manxman’s determination to have a big season, saying that he has seen signs that the multiple Tour de France stage winner is going better than before.
A 25-time Tour stage victor, Cavendish has had a slightly couple of quieter seasons of late. Although he was still very successful in other races, he took two stage wins as compared to Marcel Kittel’s four in the 2013 Tour and then crashed out on the opening stage of last year’s race.
He had hoped to shine in the latter event, thus proving that he was once again the world’s number one sprinter, but instead faced a lengthy recovery from a separated shoulder.
Hard work over the winter saw him begin the season in superb form and he clocked up stages in the Tour de San Luis and the Dubai Tour, as well as taking the overall and points classification in the latter. He was also first to the line in the Clasica de Almeria and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
While illness picked up by Cavendish and Renshaw while racing in South Africa knocked the chances of a repeat Cavendish win in Milan-San Remo, he has used the subsequent period out of competition to rebuild.
He will now start the Tour of Turkey on Sunday, returning to the race where he took four stage wins last year, and will hope to begin a big push towards a strong second period of the season plus success in the Tour de France.
“Certainly this year he looks to me to being a lot more focussed,” Renshaw said in the Etixx-Quick Step team hotel in Alanya, Turkey on Saturday afternoon. “He is always a good bike rider all year around but this year he has that little bit of extra added focus to win big races.
“He has already won a lot and I think that in this next block of racing with Turkey, California and of course finishing with the Tour, I think we will see him in better shape than last year.”
Renshaw was speaking to a group of three journalists, CyclingTips included, and spoke frankly for 20 minutes. The audio from that conversation can be heard below. He discussed a range of topics including their strong start to the season, their illness this spring, his own past history in the race and the disappointment Cavendish felt in not being able to challenge in Milan-San Remo.
He also said mentioned the setback Cavendish had when his gears slipped in Tirreno-Adriatico, costing him the chance for a sprint win there. Renshaw said that it was something that they needed to try to address and that he believed the team may have worked out the issue.
If things go to plan, Cavendish and the team will have a superb race in Turkey. There are eight stages in all and many of these will be suited to a bunch sprint. The ideal situation for Etixx-QuickStep is to equal or perhaps even better the haul from last year, thus giving Cavendish a big motivation boost heading towards California and the Tour.
“He is definitely a winner,” Renshaw answered when asked by CyclingTips if strong morale was of particular importance for someone like the Briton.
“He thrives off that. I think the team also has been on a good roll this year and we would like to keep it going. As it has been widely covered, most of the guys are up contract in the team. So everyone wants to perform for that.
“But most of all it is the first step towards Tour de France and we still have to…I suppose…perfect the leadout train a little bit with who is going to be there, who is going to go to the Tour. So there is a lot of pressure on those things also.”
“The team is getting better each year but we can’t expect that things will be 100 percent for Cav”
Both riders were part of the wildly-successful HTC Highroad team, a squad which helped Cavendish notch up 21 of his 25 Tour de France stage wins during the period from 2008 to 2011.
The team was very dominant in the sprints, but that kind of crushing advantage hasn’t been seen since, even though Etixx-QuickStep has several riders from that setup as well as team management such as Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm.
Is there a reason why Renshaw feels the Belgian team hasn’t replicated that kind of success in the sprints?
“I think it has changed a lot since HTC,” he answered. “I think back then we were the first team to perfect the leadout. We had a lot of big riders, a lot of strong riders. I think now if you look across the board, most teams have the same kind of calibre with Giant, with GreenEdge, with Lotto. They all have big strong riders.
“And most of them have an ex rider from HTC, so there is nothing new there with how we do it in the final.
“In saying that, I think maybe in the last couple of years it has evened out a little bit, the sprint field. I don’t think Cav has got any slower. I think the other guys have got faster. I think Kittel probably the main sprinter alongside Cav with strength and speed and Greipel is always consistent. So there is a lot of big names around.”
There is more to it than that, though. Cavendish has been with the team since 2013 and over that 28 months, they have been working on finessing the leadout and trying to make it as strong as possible.
When asked if he felt if the team was getting closer to what HTC Highroad had, Renshaw gave an interesting answer.
“In this team it is really hard,” he answered, a little unexpectedly. “We have so many big riders – Stybar, Kwiatkowski, Boonen, Tony Martin. We have such a vast…we have 15 riders who are the best in the world at something, so I don’t think we will ever pull them together like at HTC.
“Since coming to Quick Step, we have had a really good strong team but not really the dedicated leadout that we had in HTC where it was always me, it was always Hincapie, it was always Eisel.
“Last year sometimes it was Steegmans, sometimes it was Petacchi, sometimes it was… it was always changing, it was always a mix. So taking those things into account, it always changed when and where I had to go.”
Even if it seems logical to keep things more constant in order to boost Cavendish’s chances, he said this was unlikely to change. “I think it will always be this group of guys and this group of guys all targeting their individual things. For sure with [Fabio] Sabatini coming this year we have got more of a core group around Cav, with me and Sabatini. Then you have always got [world champion Michal] Kwiatkowski and Tony [Martin] who are really loyal team-mates to Cav and who are happy to pull in races like the Tour de France.
“In general the team is getting better each year, but we can’t expect that things will be 100 percent for Cav because the team wants the yellow jersey, they want the white jersey.”
Asked to clarify if he meant that the team’s overall strength was making things a little more complicated for Cavendish than might otherwise be the case, he confirmed that he believed this to be true.
“It definitely makes life more complicated for having a dedicated sprint train for one rider,” he said.
Next question: is he in ways envious of Kittel’s Giant-Alpecin team, in terms of the way they can approach sprints in the Tour and other races?
“For sure they can dedicate the whole team to Kittel,” he answered. “Maybe they have Warren Barguil, one or two other climbers who do their own thing, but I can safely say they can dedicate five or six riders purely to Kittel.
“That would be nice [for Etixx-QuickStep] but it only happens at a race like the Tour of Turkey, not the Tour de France.”
Renshaw wasn’t faulting his team, but rather recognising that there is a broader range of ambitions than simply targeting Tour stage wins plus the green jersey. He’s not the type to take a myopic view on this subject, nor is he the type to blast his team.
Instead, he spoke with frankness, recognising things for what they and acknowledging that a bigger picture exists beyond the hustle and bustle of the bunch gallops.
“Maybe it is frustrating for Cav and for myself not having six guys dedicated to us,” he said. “But as I said about the guys before, especially Tony and Kwia, they will give 100 percent to you.
“But if it is the day before the time trial, you know that Tony is going to swing off a little bit early because he is going to save his legs. It works well, but it is not a dedicated team for Cav, that’s for sure.”
“I think he wants to keep me, I would like to stay”
In the next three or four months Cavendish and Renshaw will together try to have the most successful run possible. One will be the designated leader for the sprints, while the other will be one of the core riders dedicated to helping him where he can.
They have a long relationship and while this twinning diverged after HTC Highroad when Cavendish went to Sky and Renshaw opted to spend two years with Rabobank, things got back on track in 2014 when the Australian returned.
If the relationship bears fruit both will be beneficiaries; the duo are in the final year of their current contracts and they know that the best arrangements will be secured if races such as the Tour go well.
Whether or not Cavendish stays at Etixx-Quick Step – something which isn’t certain, and will depend on how July pans out – Renshaw said that it was very likely he would remain alongside Cavendish in 2016.
“I think at this stage in my career, he has got great confidence in me,” he said. “It is a role that I do well and I would like to stay with him. But it all comes down to contracts, what happens. I am up contract too.
“I think he wants to keep me, I would like to stay and now it is all between the managers and the team.”
Renshaw clearly has a strong understanding of Cavendish on the bike, knowing how to set him up well and when to make his own effort in order to give him the best possible platform to win bunch sprints.
However his collaboration and input is valued off the bike as well; the duo spend a lot of time together and Renshaw knows what to say – and, importantly, what not to say – depending on the circumstances.
“I room with him most of the year, race with him most of the year,” he said. “I have probably spent the most time of anyone on the team with him.
“There is a whole other side to Cav and that is the side that the team, the riders, the staff get to see. He expects everything to be perfect, as you do on any team sport where there is glory and the victory on the line. He wants to win, he expects the best. And I think big riders like that lift teams.
“That is what makes a team work harder, maybe the pressure and expectations from the big rider. But he is always grateful. For sure when we don’t win, when we lose by making a mistake, then we analyse that and we try to do better the next day.”
“I think if Cav was on Kittel’s wheel, he would beat him nine times out of ten”
Cavendish’s duels with Kittel in 2013 and his crash on stage one of the Tour last year acted as a reminder that there is a fragility to sporting immortality. A rider who appeared unbeatable in the past hasn’t any guarantee of maintaining that advantage over his rivals.
That realisation acted as a spur to Cavendish, who worked hard over the winter and also kept his weight under better control so that he could cope with undulating courses and still be there at the end.
Cavendish was accustomed to being known as the world’s best sprinter and seeing the German take over that sobriquet would have stung.
Early victories aside, Renshaw said that there are indications that the Briton’s work has paid off.
“I think this year he is doing more Watts than last year [in the sprints – ed.] Maybe that comes down to a few things we changed on the bike. I think he is really enjoying the setup at the moment on the bike and that has helped him maybe get a little bit more power.
“I don’t think his power has dropped off at all [with age]. He has probably improved like I have in the endurance side of things, getting older, more experienced.”
So, presuming the physical side of things has picked up, what does the team need to do in terms of tactics in order to ensure that it can defeat Kittel and Giant-Alpecin during the Tour?
“To be honest, we haven’t seen him this year,” Renshaw answered. “He has been MIA a lot of the year. So I don’t even know when we will race him next.
“But to beat him is all positioning. I think if Cav was on Kittel’s wheel, he would beat him nine times out of ten. If Cav misses the jump when he goes and has to come from two wheels behind, then I think that is a lot of ground he will have to shut down to beat him.
“But 99 percent of the time it is position and who goes first out of the two.”
If he’s correct, both about Cavendish’s improvement and also the team’s better understanding of how to get him in the right place at the right time, that points to a thrilling set of battles during the Tour.
It’s not just Cavendish versus Kittel of course. But if the Briton has the right legs, the right frame of mind and the right backing, then his chances of building on his 25 stage wins and inching closer to Eddy Merckx’s all time record of 34 such victories will be greatly enhanced.
So too Renshaw’s reputation as one of the best leadout riders in the sport.