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Making the grade: How the sprinters stack up

Gorilla, Super-Sagan ready to throw down

No one doubts that Cavendish is still the point of reference in the bunch sprints. Few can equal his lethal acceleration at top-end speed. His aerodynamic position and excellent team support make it almost impossible to beat him.

That certainly hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. After all, that’s what the guys get paid to do.

Cavendish’s early season inconsistency will make the Tour de France even more tantalizing in what should be an intense, fascinating battle for bragging rights among the sprinters.

With a rough first week out of Liège, Belgium, full of stages favoring more classics-style riders that could see the pure sprinters challenged by the likes of Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), it’s hard to say how many shots the sprinters will actually get on the road to Paris.

With Team Sky devoting the majority of its resources to Wiggins, it will be interesting to see who steps up to control the sprint stages.

Two riders have shown they’re up for the challenge of taking on Cavendish, with ex-teammate André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) both sharpening their knives for July.

Greipel, 29, leads the winner’s tally among the sprinters with 11 victories on the season, though only three of them have come at the elite, WorldTour level (each at the Tour Down Under to open the season). Greipel steered clear of a showdown with Cavendish at the Giro, racing instead at the Tour of Belgium due to sponsorship obligations.

Greipel is sounding confident, however, telling VeloNews that he is not afraid of Cavendish and expects to win “at least one stage” during the Tour and “why not more?”

“I did it already last year,” Greipel said about beating Cavendish in the Tour. “If Sky does not control the sprints, perhaps we will. It depends on how many riders the team brings for me to the Tour.”

Greipel faces a similar quandary as Cavendish and will have to split the team with GC hope Jurgen van den Broeck, fourth overall in 2010, who will be making an all-out push for the final podium. Greipel is hoping to bring at least a few good men, with the likes of Greg Henderson, Lars Bak and Marcel Sieberg likely to get the nod for the Tour.

There’s no question that the muscle-bound Greipel has the power to beat Cavendish, and he’s sounding more confident than ever this year. He did not, however, get a win at Tirreno-Adriatico when he lined up against Cavendish and he somewhat flat through the classics.

The other rider breathing down Cavendish’s neck is Sagan, who will be making his long-anticipated Tour debut this year with Liquigas-Cannondale.

Sagan, 22, has eight wins on the season, with five coming at a dominant week when he was untouched in the sprints at the Amgen Tour of California. Sagan was equally strong throughout the spring, picking up a win at Tirreno en route to delivering teammate Vincenzo Nibali to overall victory and before having an impressive run through the spring classics, capped by the podium at Amstel Gold Race.

Sagan, however, could have a tough time in the pure sprints when he’s sure to be out-gunned by the trains of Sky, Lotto-Belisol and Orica-GreenEdge. Liquigas will have a man or two to help him find his place in the final kilometer, with Daniel Oss likely getting the task of piloting the young Slovak.

Sagan has proven he can win in any terrain, in pure bunch sprints to hilly, classics-style finales, so he will be the one man that Cavendish will truly have to keep an eye on.

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