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Commentary: Cavendish freed for free?

By the time the last of the confetti hit the floor at Sky’s post-Tour de France party, it was accepted as fact that Mark Cavendish would leave the team at the end of the season. His contract may have booked him through 2014, but the Tour-winning squad’s less-than-secret desire to focus solely on GC wins at the grand tours means there isn’t much of a life to be had there for a top-tier sprinter – even one that is bandied about as a potential best-ever.

On the surface, there has been little apparent animosity over the pending divorce, with both sides seemingly trying to keep things civil to preserve harmony within the British cycling family. But as amicable as the split may be, the matter of splitting up assets persists, and in this case Cavendish’s seven-figure buyout clause, a sort of contractual pre-nup, was holding up the parting. Monday, however, Britain’s Cycling Weekly reported that Sky had agreed to waive its buyout demand, setting Cavendish free, for free, and eliminating one of the biggest hurdles many teams had to pursuing the outgoing world champion.

But while Cav’s new lower price would seem to open up more options, talk of his destination remains solidly fixed on the Belgian Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. And not without reason – the road to Omega Pharma looks to be freshly repaved for Cavendish’s arrival, and “sources close to Cavendish” have told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that a deal was close to being finalized. The Belgian squad is a natural choice for Cavendish, but his arrival would also mean a bit of a shakeup at one of the sport’s steadiest teams.

Familiar faces

Though he’s never ridden for the team before, for Cavendish, part of the attraction to Omega Pharma may be its familiarity. He has been up front about his nostalgia for the strength and dedication of his late-generation HTC-HighRoad squad, which took a number of powerful, name riders and shaped them into this decade’s answer to Mario Cipollini’s collectively famous but individually anonymous “red train.” Several key elements of that team — the one that molded Cavendish into a star — have reassembled under the Omega Pharma banner. Former High Road director Brian Holm joined up with Patrick Lefevere’s squad after High Road’s 2011 swansong, and the team’s second director, Rolf Aldag, is already set to rejoin Holm at Omega Pharma for the 2013 season after spending a year working for a triathlon management company. On the sponsor side, High Road bike supplier Specialized, with whom Cavendish enjoyed a good working relationship, also moved to Omega Pharma when High Road folded.

There, too, will be Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch, the German time trial locomotives that formed the early stages of the High Road leadout rocket, as well as former teammates Peter and Martin Velits and Frantisek Rabon. The band isn’t completely getting back together, however. Cavendish’s unrivalled leadout man at High Road, Mark Renshaw, is trying his own hand at Rabobank now, but Cav would benefit from the presence of Gert Steegmans, the towering Flandrian who was Boonen’s slingshot in his bunch sprinting days.

Boonen’s blessing

And what of Boonen, the home crowd’s favorite son, the team’s franchise player, and, like Cavendish, a winner of the Tour de France’s green jersey? In the Belgian media, “Tommeke” has welcomed the idea of Cavendish’s potential arrival, stating that while they’ve had their conflicts in the past they respect each other as riders. It helps, of course, that the two are no longer battling head-to-head in the field sprints. Boonen, now a cobbled classics icon with four Paris-Roubaix cobblestones on his mantle, downplayed any conflict in a Het Nieuwsblad interview, noting that with his focus on the classics rather than stages, “Nine out of 10 times that I sprint, Cavendish isn’t there anymore.” Taking it a step further, Boonen hinted that he wouldn’t mind pulling a sprint or two for the Manxman come Tour time, saying that the Tour would be more fun knowing that the team had a rider capable of winning three or four stages.

Boonen’s attitude punctuates what many have suspected for several years — that his transition from bunch sprint threat to a classics hardman with a fearsome kick is finally complete, and perhaps more importantly, that he knows it. The comments also hint at a mature Boonen, one that is confident enough in his own abilities and status to not flinch at the arrival of another superstar. That ease bodes well for his own season, and given that he’s been Quick Step’s nearly unchallenged attraction since the retirement of Johan Museeuw, graciously accepting a co-star — publicly at least — is no small feat.

That doesn’t mean Cavendish’s arrival won’t create friction, and one test of goodwill could come early in the 2013 season. While Boonen is already the archbishop of the Flemish “Holy Week”, he’s never achieved his yearly goal of winning the season’s opening classic, Milan-San Remo. He’s finished on the podium twice, coming third behind Oscar Freire and Allan Davis in 2007 and second behind Freire again in 2010. He was also fourth in 2006, when then-teammate Filippo Pozzato parlayed a late-race setup move into a win. Cavendish already has “La Primavera” on his palmarès, having pipped Heinrich Haussler on the line to win in 2009, but has made no secret of wanting a second title as confirmation. Lefevere has made a career of turning multiple threats — and egos — into wins, but even he may have his hands full come March. That said, if the team can make it work, and get Boonen, Cavendish, and Sylvain Chavanel to the foot of the Cipressa, it could be the stuff of legend.

Ripple effects

Boonen and Cavendish may have several conflicting goals, but one conflict Cav won’t face at Omega Pharma is a rival bunch sprinter. Gerald Ciolek, once hailed as “the next Zabel”, has failed to live up to those expectations and will descend to the relatively obscure MTN-Qhubeka team next year. Omega Pharma’s other sprinter, Italian Francesco Chicchi, has signed with Farnese Vini-Selle Italia for next season. The departure of the Omega Pharma sprinting corps may be an indicator that a Cavendish arrival is already viewed as a done deal within the team. Steegmans, himself a winner on the Champs Elysees at the Tour, may balk at returning to the leadout role he played for both Boonen and Robbie McEwen, but having failed to exploit opportunities for leadership during tumultuous years at Katusha and RadioShack, he’s unlikely to get much sympathy.

In addition to shuffling the sprinting lineup, Cavendish’s arrival at Omega Pharma would usher in a new, more focused strategy for Lefevere’s squad at the grand tours, a shift that will come at the expense of general classification riders and climbers. Justifiably, Omega Pharma has been marked by fans and organizers alike as a classics squad that could be counted on to hunt stages on the flats and transitional stages, but not feature in the overall. Nevertheless, Lefevere has long engaged in a sort of GC contender tokenism, hiring a string of second-tier or declining GC riders — from a post-confession Richard Virenque and his henchman Laurent Dufaux to Jose Rujano, and offering them only minimal support. With the arrival of Cavendish, as well as the possible loss of current GC man Levi Leipheimer to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency maelstrom, Omega Pharma may finally dispense with the classification pretense. Cavendish’s goal in leaving Sky is clear — to have an entire team at his disposal for the grand tours — and if he goes to Omega Pharma, it will be because he has been promised just that. An on-form and interested Boonen would likely be given a free hand, and Martin will be allowed to cut loose in time trials, but all other efforts will go to Cavendish, leaving mountain domestiques and GC top-10 chasers on the bench come July. Horsepower will be paramount, and Omega Pharma has plenty to offer in its stable of northern all-rounders.

What’s in it for Sky?

The roads of the 2013 racing season would ultimately answer the question of how a Cavendish move to Omega Pharma works out, but what we may never fully know is why Sky chose to forgo the entirety of his healthy buyout sum rather than simply reducing the price to get his salary — and an unhappy rider — off its books. Given Sky’s deep connections to the national British Cycling program, currently riding high after its London Olympic success, perhaps Cavendish reached an agreement to do national team duty (on-bike or off-) when called upon in exchange for his freedom. Or, as has been rumored, maybe Sky agreed to drop the buyout in a negotiated agreement with Omega Pharma that would see rising British talent Andrew Fenn, who the Belgian squad recently re-signed through 2014, effectively traded to Sky for Cavendish. If the latter comes to pass, the maneuvering will be fairly obvious. If it doesn’t, we may be left to wonder what the true price of Cavendish’s freedom was.

Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999. You can follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.

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