Why are the marquee sprinters at the Santos Tour Down Under not in winning form?

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The 2011 Santos Tour Down Under boasts no less than 16 sprinters including three of the world’s best. But that latter trio – Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and André Greipel – are yet to win a stage. VeloNews delves a little deeper to discover why they aren’t winning.

2011 Tour Down Under - Stage 3: Cavendish shows the damage from his crash on Stage 2.
Cavendish started his season earlier than ever.

Having asked that, it would be unfair to say defending champion André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) is not in good shape — he’s certainly looking leaner than last year, gaunt even — but so far, he’s encountered a superlative Matthew Goss (HTC-HighRoad) who, should he get over the Willunga Hill stage Saturday in the front group, appears the odds-on favorite for overall victory.

“I mean, it’s always the same at the beginning of the season; all the riders are in the same position and nobody knows how their condition is,” said Greipel before the TDU began, a two-time winner of the race.

The gorilla of a man, who says he got his preternatural strength from his mother, also indicated his lack of a stage win so far could be attributed to the newness of his team; after all, it took a good couple of months before his former team-mate turned adversary Mark Cavendish (HTC-HighRoad) got their leadouts down to a T. “We are a new team and we have to start working with each other,” Greipel said, currently second overall after three stages. It may also be his reduced weight is costing him a little in outright speed; this time last year he had already won two out of three legs.

On the first stage from Mawson Lakes to Angaston where Greipel finished second to Goss, the German said he got boxed in and had to start his sprint earlier than he wished; he also felt the slightly uphill finish suited Goss more than him. “He’s (Goss) just as strong at the moment in a sprint like this. The faster sprint finishes are coming,” said Greipel in Angaston, accompanied by his trademark deadpan expression. Their places were reversed on the third stage to Stirling but under-23 world champion Michael Matthews (Rabobank) trumped them both to take the win, although Goss’ third place saw him regain the race leadership.

Cavendish said right from the get-go he hadn’t brought his A-game Down Under, even though he was in good form for January: “Obviously, I’m not in Tour de France form right now,” he told VeloNews. “I haven’t raced in January since I turned professional.”

Despite the snowbound European winter that put London’s Heathrow Airport into meltdown just before Christmas, Cav’ said he hadn’t missed too many days training — despite “coming from an island that pisses rain 200 days a year” — and felt like he had a solid off-season. However, the Manxman cautioned his words by saying a successful off-season did not mean he had come to Australia with stage-winning form.

“I’m not going to bust a gut to be as skinny as I can to win here,” Cavendish said. “It’s nice to win races but I’ve got bigger goals — the Tour de France, Milan-San Remo, the world championships. I’m not going to go full-gas right now.”

Sure enough, after the Cancer Council Classic and three stages of the TDU, Cav’ hasn’t been seen anywhere near the front in the four bunch gallops to date. And, following his spill Wednesday (Stage 2) which resulted in a deep cut to his eye that required two stitches, he’s likely to be even more conservative. In fact, don’t be surprised to see the Manx Express leading out his HTC-HighRoad bro’ Goss in the Tasmanian’s bid for overall victory, because Cavendish will be counting on ‘Gossy’ doing plenty of the same for him at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, along with his main man Mark Renshaw, considered the best in the world at what he does.

“At the end of the day, I’m riding for the team and so long as my team wins, that’s what I’m happy about,” said Cavendish.

“We’ve got our best chance (to win overall) with Matt Goss and there’s no egos involved there; it’s just about getting the best for our team and that’s how it is… If he (Goss) seals up the overall you may see me sprint later on but it’s still January — I don’t have to be going well for another three months or so.”

Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar is another fella in the same boat as Greipel and Cavendish, and like the latter, is under no illusions about his chances.

“This race is important and I wanted to come here in good enough shape to take a crack at the sprints, but my main objectives are still two months away,” Farrar told VeloNews. “My first big goal of the year is the Spring Classics, starting with (Milan-) San Remo and running all the way through to Paris-Roubaix. So, if I was one hundred percent now, I don’t think I’d be one hundred percent then. I’m on my way up, but I still have a ways to go.”

Farrar's top goals are still a couple months away.
Farrar's top goals are still a couple months away.

The consummate professional who bases himself in the beguiling cycling-mad city of Ghent, Belgium, during the season (naturally, he’s fluent in Flemish) said he’s yet to work out a perfect pre-season plan — hence the decision to come Down Under for the first time and move onto Spain’s Tour of Algarve afterwards.

Farrar figured Greipel would be back to defend his title. But the presence of his main adversary – or more correctly, every sprinter’s nemesis if your name’s not Mark Cavendish — who he didn’t get to race as much as he’d liked last year, was more than likely an equally compelling reason to fly halfway across the planet for the World Tour opener.

“Really, I didn’t get to race much against him (Cavendish) last year. It was mostly in the Tour (de France) and in the Vuelta (a España) and my Tour was a bit of a disaster with injuries, so the Vuelta was the only chance I got to race against him and I felt like I was on top form,” said Farrar, who won two stages at the Spanish Grand Tour including the final.

With a beefed-up Classics squad and a few more leadout men at his disposal — doubtless, he’s earned it the past two years — Farrar feels like his Garmin-Cervélo unit will, once they get their train well-coupled, be able to take more control in the final kilometers, to hopefully match and beat the HTC-HighRoad juggernaut.

“I want to go for the sprints and practice a few lead-outs with Jules (Dean) and Brett (Lancaster) and the rest of the team but I’m not in one-hundred percent shape yet,” Farrar said, “so it’s fine for me that everyone wants to focus on those two guys (Cavendish and Greipel). (But) a sprint’s a sprint – I’ll definitely try in every one. It’s still getting to know everyone a bit, and just getting the order worked out and giving the lead-out (train) a few run-throughs early in the year.”

Asked which stages he’s scouted with the team as “maybe’s,” he said: “We’ve ridden the stage to Stirling (stage 3) and the stage to Willunga (stage 5) — that climb looks pretty nasty. On normal top form, I’d say I’d get over it for sure; this time of year where I’m at, at the moment, I’m not quite as confident.

“Also, the Stirling stage, if I’m on, I would say that’s a really good one for me but I’m not completely sure where my form’s at. That’s what this week is about, to see where I’m at and to see what I need to work on.”

Editor’s note: On the third stage of the Tour Down Under, from Unley to Stirling, Greipel, Farrar and Cavendish finished second, 90th and 130th respectively, and currently lie second, 112th and 131st on the overall classification behind race leader Matthew Goss of HTC-HighRoad.