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Is Mark Cavendish bluffing on Milano-Sanremo?

Mark Cavendish opens his classics season on Sunday. Is he playing coy to take the pressure off ahead of Milano-Sanremo?

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MILAN (VN) — The biggest surprise in the Tour of Qatar earlier this month was not that Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) won, but that he said Milano-Sanremo ranks low on his list of priorities for 2013. Cavendish will open his classics season on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, where he is the defending champion.

“It’s not a big priority for me anymore,” Cavendish said, measuring the season’s first monument. “I’ll race it, but it’s not a big objective at the beginning of the year; it’s too difficult.”

Cavendish shot free in the sprint to win Sanremo in a photo-finish over Heinrich Haussler in 2009. It was his debut in the race; he was only 23 years old and rode on the hip of former teammate George Hincapie, who shepherded him over the Cipressa and Poggio climbs. Cavendish has since called it one of his favorite days. Since then, he has rounded out his palmares to include 23 stage wins and a green jersey in the Tour de France, and a world title.

He left Great Britain’s super team, Sky, over the winter for Omega Pharma. The team presumably is paying him well, so it is hard to believe that its top brass would not want Cavendish to try for another Sanremo win on March 17.

Though the race has changed over the years, becoming progressively harder, it still frequently finishes in a group sprint. Three-time winner Oscar Freire was the last to win from a bunch kick, in 2010. Cavendish’s 2009 win came after the addition of the Le Mànie climb — he’s proven he can win on the current parcours, if the conditions and race suit him.

Given the likelihood of a sprint and Cavendish’s skills, it leads one to wonder if he is simply bluffing.

“He could be bluffing, and also bluffing me!” Omega director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “We hope that as we get closer he’s going to switch over and make it a target, and he will, of course. He’s like any racer; he’d love to win it, but I don’t see it as a main target.

“He’s always been talking about the Giro and Tour, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to try to win Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Ghent-Wevelgem, or Milano-Sanremo. He’s just not excited about [Sanremo] like he is for the Tour and the Giro.”

Cavendish’s rivals are not convinced.

“Em, it’s a load of shit. Fucking bullshit. Of course it is. Cav’s won it once and he’s got the potential to win it two, three, five times,” Cavendish’s friend, Adam Blythe (BMC Racing) said.
“Sanremo’s always been one of his goals. What else is he going to do?”

John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) was runner-up to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in the field sprint for fourth last year in Sanremo. He said that if Cavendish were to make the front group heading into the finale, the race dynamic would change dramatically.

“The race would be different if he’s not there. If he’s there, then everyone tries to drop him,” Degenkolb explained. “If he’s going into the race, then he’s going in to win it.”

Cavendish possesses the fastest kick, hands down, but Sanremo has not gone his way since 2009. Technical glitches, crashes, and the La Mànie climb have ended his chances.

“Being a big favorite last year, being dropped and not coming back, it’s never funny. Or building up for the Olympics, and having what seemed like every Brit blaming for him not winning,” Holm said. “He’s a champion because he can deal with [the pressure]. Sometimes, though, it becomes too much.”

A good bluff is a coy technique for dodging pressure. We will see in 3.5 weeks’ time if it works.