Will Mark Cavendish’s Olympic track racing ambitions help or hinder his road season?

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Mark Cavendish’s decision to combine road and track during the 2016 season – and, in doing so, to take on a very intense workload in chasing his aim of Tour de France, Olympic and world championship success – is undoubtedly a brave one.

It’s also a gamble, a scattergun approach that will either seem him achieve huge things in 2016 or fall between stools.

Thus far his intensive track work over the winter hasn’t appeared to affect his road form. He was second and third on stages of the Dubai Tour, his first road race of the season, and went to win the opening stage of the Tour of Qatar.

Cavendish then took over the race lead on Thursday, inheriting the yellow jersey from Edvald Boasson Hagen after his team-mate punctured out of the lead group. With one stage left he has a strong chance of winning the event.

The question is, though, how will Cavendish’s chock-a-block schedule affect his form in the Tour in July and in other major road events? CyclingTips spoke to three big figures in the sport in recent weeks, getting their thoughts on this matter.

Sean Kelly is the former world number one and a four-time winner of the Tour de France’s green jersey. Alexander Kristoff is one of the best riders in the current peloton, taking Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders in recent seasons and also clocking up stage wins in the Tour de France.

The third, Neal Henderson, is coach to riders such as Taylor Phinney and Sam Bennett, and is also a high performance consultant for USA Cycling. He works with some of the federation’s top track talent, giving him experience in both areas of the sport.

Tour of Qatar 2016 - Elite - Stage 2

“I think the track will take from him this year”

Kelly spoke on the subject in advance of the Dubai Tour, and said then that he was uncertain how the season focus on road and track would go for the Briton.

“I think if Cavendish was concentrating solely on the road he could perhaps get back to where he was a couple of seasons ago,” he said, “but I think the track will take from him this year.

“I think if he had concentrated 100 percent on the road with his new team, he probably could win quite a few of the big sprints again. However, with a mixed programme, I think some other guys might be a problem.

“This wouldn’t be the case if he gets back to a real high level. But it’s difficult to see that this year, considering he is going to concentrate on the track.”

Kristoff gave his own perspective prior to going up against Cavendish in the Tour of Qatar. He was asked if he felt the Briton could return to being as dominant in sprinting as he was in the past.

“I think it will be hard to be so dominant,” he answered, “because now I think there are more teams and riders who are this level. But still I think he will be there.

“But I think he also has a big focus for Olympics, for the track. So hopefully for us all, he will have too much focus for this and get a little bit worse on the road. [laughs]”

Since then Cavendish has shown solid form, beating Kristoff on stage one but losing out to him on stage two and again on Thursday’s fourth leg of the race. He’s ridden solidly throughout, though, and is poised to possibly win Qatar on Friday.

Of course, it’s early days yet in the season. The most important races are still months away, and in time it will become more clear as to how successful the dual campaign will be.

Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data), the new Tour of Qatar race leader, and stage four winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data), the new Tour of Qatar race leader, and stage four winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

Is his selection guaranteed?

Of course, said campaign will only happen if Cavendish is able to stick with his plans to chase goals on the road and in the velodrome. Speaking at the start of the Tour of Qatar, he told journalists that he would make a decision on riding the track worlds based on how things went.

He finished fourth in the omnium event in last month’s Hong Kong World Cup but his place on the British team for the Olympic Games is not yet assured.

Riding the track worlds and doing well there may well be necessary to secure his place on the track in Rio.

Henderson explained why British Cycling might be clinical rather than sentimental in picking its team for the Olympics. He said that track racing has become increasingly specific in recent years, with less riders doing well in both the velodrome and on the road.

“At this point for endurance riders we have two events; the team pursuit and the omnium, which is composed of six individual events over two days,” he explained.

“Back in 2008, Mark was world champion on the track in the madison. However the flying lap in the omnium is something that is a little bit different. The elimination race is much more tactical.

“He clearly has good decision-making ability and executes well and has good capacity there, but some of it at the Olympic level is knowing who rides what, how they race, knowing their competitors well.

“Okay, he has done one big international race now with the Hong Kong World Cup. We will see what happens for the world championships in London with the home crowd.

“As we know, British Cycling has had a phenomenal run of performances for the past ten years and they need to put out their best person on the day. For me one of the interesting and intriguing aspects at this point is that they have got some riders who have clearly got class and capacity. You have Ed Clancy and then you have a younger rider coming up in Jon Dibben.

“And then [with Cavendish] you have an absolutely experienced veteran of bike racing and even Olympic experience who is hungry, but maybe without quite as much in terms of doing recent high-level track racing.

“So there are pluses and minuses. From a track-specific perspective, a lot of people within the track community say that he hasn’t had a lot of recent racing experience in this new format.”

Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins (Great Britain) celebrate their madison world championship success in Manchester, England, 2008
Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins (Great Britain) celebrate their madison world championship success in Manchester, England, 2008

Challenges in the crossover

Returning to the track after several years away brings other challenges too. On the plus side, Henderson states that the endurance requirements of road racing can help in events such as the team pursuit and the longer omnium races, and so too the demands of recovering from each of the latter events.

He notes too that the points race is the final event in the series, and this in itself puts very big demands on riders.

“It’s the longest event and is the one with the most potential for breakaways, lapping the field, and repeated explosive sprinting. So having a big endurance base is clearly a benefit there.”

However there are possible negatives too for road riders. “The downsides are some of the technical and tactical elements of some of the track-specific races,” he explains.

“For example, in the flying lap, being a fast road sprinter doesn’t necessarily mean that you have great speed on the track for that flying lap effort. It helps, but it doesn’t guarantee it.”

He says that picking the correct line, having specific training with a fixed wheel and also hitting top speed at exactly the right time are skills that are built up through repeated track racing. The event is won and lost by milliseconds and judging things precisely right are vital.

There is also the question about whether or not riding long road races will blunt the speed and explosiveness needed in a track rider.

“I’d say the potential to lost that speed exists,” he said, emphasising the word potential. “It depends on the type of training that is being done.

“On the track, we tend to have a little bit more of that kind of pure peak power as well as a strength component with the fixed gear that, again, we don’t need much of on the road. So, depending on the training an individual has done throughout their road career, you could maintain that at a high level and not really lose much, if that is something that you have paid attention to.

“But on the flip side, if you have changed the type of training to really be at your best on the road and maybe put some of those high explosive and strength things on the back burner, over time you would tend to see some fall-off in those capacities.”

Mark Cavendish in action at the 2008 world track championships in Manchester, England
Mark Cavendish in action at the 2008 world track championships in Manchester, England

A winning formula?

As can be seen, being a top road sprinter doesn’t guarantee success on the track, even if Cavendish has won world titles in the velodrome in the past. He might excel, but it will depend on how well he has been able to fine-tune his physical and technical characteristics over the winter, and also if he can get his track instincts back in terms of tactics.

But what about the flipside; could riding the track actually boost his road career?

“There are plusses and minuses,” said Henderson. “A plus is that the high end peak power and strength capacity gained from the track will only serve as a positive on the road.”

In other words, the high intensity focus of the velodrome could transfer back across. So does Henderson believe that this could restore some of the sprint superiority Cavendish showed earlier in his career?

“I do. Yes,” he answered. “The potential enhancement for road performance based on doing some of the type of training necessary on the track to be there is clearly possible.”

Indeed, Cavendish said during the Tour of Qatar that he hit his highest sprint power figures since his halcyon days with the HTC Highroad team. This would seem to back up this possibility.

However Henderson warns that trying to be good in two very different disciplines is a gamble.

“The question is, do you become spread too thin in trying to do both at the best at the highest level on the track and on the road? If you look at Marcel Kittel, he doesn’t have anything to do with the track right now. He is exclusively focussed on the road, whereas several other track riders have a laser focus on the track.

“Mark is trying to do both. And so psychological energy management is an aspect there, being on and being on and being on, in terms of expectation and high performance. Great Britain has some pretty high goals, of course, coming off the past couple of Olympics.

“They can’t afford not to have riders capable of contributing to that highest level on their team pursuit as well, in terms of their endurance rider pool.”

In recognising that a dual programme brings a lot of physical and psychological demands, Henderson does acknowledge that Cavendish is a special performer. The rider himself has said that if anyone can do it, he can, and there is a sense that Henderson is also of this view.

“Mark is a world class athlete with a phenomenal palmares and has been able to deliver across seasons under that expectation. He has some proven track record there,” he said.

Still, it’s going to take a lot of careful thinking.

“Can he focus on the Olympics and still perform at a very high level in road events? I think if they look at the big picture and come up with a good plan that an individual could execute at the Tour de France and then go on to Rio and execute, there is a possibility there.

“But it is going to take some very good, clear planning and execution in the preparation as well as in the races, in terms of what the true goals are.”

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