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Proving Grounds: For three riders, what happens at the Giro will shape July

3. The leadout shakeout

The difficulties encountered by Mark Cavendish’s leadout train at his new Omega Pharma-Quick Step home have been well documented, from a promising start at Qatar, through implosions at Tirreno-Adriatico, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, and the Scheldeprijs. While Cavendish and team management were both clearly — and at times vocally — frustrated, those leadout misfires were easier to dismiss in March, as the team was still solidly focused on its treasured cobbled classics. Now, with the start of the Giro, Omega Pharma needs to see signs that its investment in Cavendish will be returned with bags of stage wins in this summer’s grand tours.

The team’s desperation to fix the problems was on display in a short-lived effort to hire 39-year-old Alessandro Petacchi just a week before the Giro, just days after his abrupt retirement from Lampre-Merida. The UCI refused to allow what amounted to a thinly disguised midseason transfer, and Omega Pharma was denied what it hoped would be the magic bullet for its leadout woes.

Despite Cavendish winning the stage and taking the pink jersey, the Giro’s opening day again demonstrated that the team was right to be worried. Yes, Omega Pharma capably controlled the stage leading into the finale, but the long game has never been the problem. The Giro lineup proved itself capable of doing that job, and the Tour will likely see an even stronger formation bolstered by a cadre of Cav’s former High Road locomotives — Bert Grabsch, Tony Martin, and one or both of the Velits twins.

It is the crucial final kilometers that have consistently plagued the team, with management seemingly searching since the early season to find the right combination and the riders desperately chasing cohesiveness.

On Saturday, Omega Pharma’s goal was to have three men with Cavendish in the final kilometer, with former six days star Iljo Keisse marshaling the troops and doing his turn before and handing off to Matteo Trentin, on the comeback trail after a scaphoid fracture at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Trentin was to give way to Gert Steegmans, who would launch Cavendish. But with two kilometers to go and Cannondale driving to the line for Elia Viviani, Cavendish was already down to just Steegmans, who would soon suffer a mechanical and gap Cavendish off in the process. Cavendish closed the gap on this own and freelanced his way to the win — a testament to his talent and determination — but it was hardly the support expected for the sport’s dominant sprinter.

By the end of the Giro’s three weeks, team management and fans should know whether the Keisse-Trentin-Steegmans combination will be a winning one, or if more last minute tinkering will be needed before the Tour. On Wednesday, stage 5’s fourth category climb and rising finish could rule a Cavendish win out, but stage 6 to Margherita di Savoia on the Adriatic coast should give the next indication of whether the team is finally coming together. If Omega Pharma misfires there, the team will likely to have to wait until stage 13’s 254km march to Cherasco to take another crack.

Depending on the results of those stages, manager Patrick Lefevere and director Brian Holm, who helped shape Cavendish’s unrivaled High Road trains of 2009 and 2010, will contemplate the adjustments necessary before the Tour. Omega Pharma does have options, in both finishing order and lineup. Variations might make use of classics man Niki Terpstra, who has pitched in on several occasions in the early season, and even Tom Boonen’s stated willingness to work with Cavendish when he signed with the team might ultimately be put to the test. Belgian sprinter Gianni Meersman, a winner of two stages of Romandie when Cavendish was unable to make it over the hills, could be called up as well, particularly if Steegmans’ spotty performance continues.

Cavendish will win sprints in France, whether Omega Pharma’s leadout hits its stride or not. He proved that last year, when he rode for Sky with minimal support and still bagged three stages. He proved it this year when he won despite a blown leadout at De Panne, and again on Saturday’s rocky finish in Naples. The question is, will Omega Pharma be able to maximize his abilities? The former world champion is fast enough and clever enough to win on his own when need be, but with a quality leadout, he is as close as it comes to unbeatable. If Omega Pharma’s train finally starts to gel at the Giro and can hone its lineup and coordination before the Tour, Cavendish could be back to his ravenous High Road hauls of five or six Tour stages. And if he does, Omega Pharma will be plenty happy with its returns.

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