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No one questions that Mark Cavendish is the fastest sprinter in the world. Cavendish will tell you as much, but so will his rivals.
The 2012 season saw a different Cavendish, however. For the first time since his meteoric rise began in 2007, he wasn’t surrounded by a train to control stages and drive home the sprints.
After his highly anticipated offseason move to Sky, Cavendish, in the rainbow stripes of world champion, soon found himself in the unfamiliar position of playing second fiddle to Bradley Wiggins and his GC aspirations.
Smelling the opportunity to make history with Wiggins, Cavendish became a cog in a larger wheel rather than the center of attention. The Manxman still won plenty in his world champion season, taking 15 wins on the year, including the overall at the Ster ZLM Tour in Holland.
But for all the highs — three stages each at the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia — there were plenty of lows to test Cavendish’s mettle.
He fell flat at Milan-San Remo when he sounded more confident than ever that he’d take his second win there. He missed out on a chance to win the Giro points jersey on the final day, losing out to Joaquim Rodríguez, but Cavendish fought bravely to the end.
The Tour proved frustrating. On one side, Cavendish enjoyed being part of Sky’s history-making Tour-winning squad, but he knew it was at his expense. He lost the green jersey to the rising talent of Peter Sagan.
All that didn’t matter because the Olympics were supposed to be his. The five-man British team was riding for him and no one else.
Things turned sideways when a big group of 30-plus riders pulled clear over Box Hill. With the Germans content to watch Cavendish not win, he settled for a bittersweet 29th on a day he, and everyone else, expected him to be crowned on the finishing straight on The Mall.
Ever confident, Cavendish expects things to return to “normal” with his move to Omega Pharma-Quick Step. With his train back on track, the locomotive is sure to be firing at all cylinders.
Throughout the season, Cavendish also got a good glimpse at the riders who will be most serious challengers to his sprint throne in the coming years.
Here’s a look at the best sprints of 2012 and some of the names that the Cannonball will be facing in the coming months.
5. Marcel Kittel: First classic by a whisker
The scene was Belgian classics at its best — or worst. After a brutal race fraught with rain, wind and cold, the 2012 Scheldeprijs came down to its inevitable mass gallop out of a reduced group of leading protagonists.
The “sprinter’s classic” didn’t fail to deliver, with Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) taking a slender victory over Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) and Theo Bos (Rabobank).
The win was huge for the towering, 6-foot-2-inch Kittel, who just keeps getting better. While his Tour de France debut was derailed by a stomach virus, Kittel bounced back to win six more sprints in the second half of the season.
The victory would have meant the world to Farrar, who bet heavily on last year’s spring classics campaign. Haunted by the death of Wouter Weylandt and his own heavy crash in the 2011 Vuelta a España, Farrar wanted to repeat his Scheldeprijs win from 2010.
Instead it was Kittel taking the flowers in a photo finish that should open new ground in his skill set. Already a force in long, power sprints, Kittel will work to develop his classics potential as he builds on his endurance and tactics for the longer, 200km-plus one-day races.
With Argos entering the WorldTour league for 2013, Kittel will be getting more than a few chances.
4. Guardini: Momma’s boy who rides fast
Three hours after his victory in stage 18 at the Giro d’Italia, Andrea Guardini was still celebrating. The baby-faced Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) came off the wheel early and surprised the bunch with a breakthrough win in his Giro debut.
For any Italian sprinter, winning your first stage in your national tour is a huge milestone. For Guardini, the win over stewing world champ Mark Cavendish catapulted the 23-year-old into the headlines.
La Gazzetta dello Sport quickly hailed him as the “next Cipollini.” Italy is hungry for another winning sprinter and many believe they’ve found one in Guardini. Compact, fast and ambitious, Guardini might have the winning combo to go places.
For an Italian, he rarely raced in Italy, at least not this year. The Giro stage win was the only one last year in Europe; the rest came in Asia. He won six of 10 stages at the Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia and three stages at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in China.
For 2013, Guardini makes the move to the WorldTour with a two-year deal with Astana.
He’ll have plenty more chances to knock heads with the likes of Cavendish again to try to prove that his Giro win was no fluke.
3. John Degenkolb: Confirmation of raw talent
John Degenkolb was always nibbling at the edge of big-time success, with insiders at the former HTC-Highroad, where he won two stages at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné, singing his praises.
With a move to Argos-Shimano in 2012, he finally took a huge bite out of the peloton with no less than five stage wins at the Vuelta a España.
Which one was the best? Take your pick, because he won with cool confidence that defied his 23 years. His first, in stage 2 in Viana, was probably the most telling, because few were picking him to win.
Sky and Orica-GreenEdge were driving the final surge when Degenkolb exploded off the wheel to stab his bike across the line victoriously ahead of Allan Davis and Ben Swift.
Granted, the mountainous 2012 Vuelta, with no less than 10 summit finales, didn’t draw the deepest sprinters’ field, but Degenkolb made it over the climbs and picked up four more stage wins.
The young German ace bookended his season with fifth at Milan-San Remo (second in the field sprint) and fourth at Paris-Tours, revealing he has the chops to ride longer classics as well.
With Argos graduating to the WorldTour in 2013, Degenkolb looks to be just getting started. Team brass promise to share the wealth between Kittel and Degenkolb this season. Kittel is best when it’s long, fast and flat, while Degenkolb is more like an all-terrain vehicle, who can win in a variety of circumstances and conditions. Fourth at the worlds in Valkenburg, Degenkolb should just keep getting better with age.
2. Mark Cavendish: Still no one better
Mark Cavendish’s rainbow jersey season didn’t quite unfold as he had hoped. His high-profile move to Sky saw more intrigue than a Ken Follett novel, but when Sky grabbed the chance to make history and win the Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins, Cavendish was the odd man out.
In the most important race of the year, the Manxman settled for leftovers, with only Edvald Boasson Hagen and the ever-faithful Bernhard Eisel to help him in the bunch sprints at the Tour.
In stage 18 of this year’s Tour, Cavendish won a sublime sprint led out by none other than yellow-jersey man Wiggins. Cavendish’s old Madison partner drove the peloton toward the red kite and then Boasson Hagen took pulls to close in on breakaways Nicholas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) in the final 200 meters.
The day looked settled for a win from the break when Cavendish uncorked his trademark acceleration and blew past everyone to win his second stage. Three days later he would win on the Champs-Élysées for the fourth time — good for his 23rd career Tour stage victory.
Now at Omega Pharma-Quick Step for 2013, Cavendish will once again have a full team taking pulls for him. With his train back on track, the Cannonball is sure to fire again.
1. Peter Sagan: Forrest Gump, he’s not
Peter Sagan made a bet with Liquigas boss Paolo Zani at the start of the 2012 Tour de France that if he won two stages and the green jersey, Zani would buy him a Porsche.
The 22-year-old Slovak got his brand-new car, by topping that bet with three stages and the green jersey in what was one of the most dramatic Tour debuts in a long time.
After Liquigas sent the “too young” Sagan to the 2011 Vuelta a España, where he promptly won three stages, the Slovak sensation made the most of his first shot at the Tour.
His three Tour wins were impressive in that they were across all types of terrain. His first came in stage 1 in Seraing, where he held off Fabian Cancellara and Edvald Boasson Hagen in a classics-style finale. Stage 6 was a pure sprinter’s course when he knocked back André Greipel and Matt Goss.
Sagan’s best came in stage 3 when he channeled Forrest Gump and won, galloping across the line ahead of Boasson Hagen on a grinding uphill finale at Boulogne-sur-Mer. With the pack fractured due to crashes, Sagan bolted clear with 200 meters to go in a dramatic run to the finish.
Revealing a bit of charm behind his sometimes-stoic exterior, Sagan joked that his teammates challenged him that he should “run like Forrest Gump” if he managed to win again as he knocked back pre-race favorites Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde.
Sagan’s multi-faceted skillset extends to the classics. In 2012, his classics campaign revealed the depth of his talent and provided a telling preview of what the world can expect this season.
Though victory eluded him last spring, he was fourth at Milan-San Remo, leading the pack behind the winning trio. He followed that up with second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and a podium with third at Amstel Gold Race.
Sagan promises to keep adding flares to his finish-line romps. With his searing speed, unmatched power and Merckx-like ambition, Sagan will need to dig into his bag of tricks to keep coming up with new finish-line theatrics; 2013 should be huge for Sagan.