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SANTANDER, Spain (VN) – Growing speculation that Mark Cavendish would jettison Sky after just one season with the British super team has put Omega Pharma-Quick Step in the front row of possible destinations.
The Belgian team has the budget and the space to accommodate the superstar sprinter, along with a few key riders to make a train, but team boss Patrick Lefevere refused to confirm suggestions that a “Manx Missile” move is imminent.
“You journalists like this discussion, but until I see some proof that it’s true, that he’s free, then it’s just a rumor,” Lefevere told VeloNews. “Some say he is free to leave, others say it’s better if he goes. I cannot make a decision based on rumors. I cannot make a decision until I see something written.”
Sky is giving nothing away. Public comments from several key players, including Dave Brailsford and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, suggest that a Cavendish exit is likely despite two more years remaining on his contract. Edvald Boasson Hagen said this week that the team had forbidden riders from commenting on the subject.
Both Brailsford and Wiggins have confirmed that the future of Sky lies with a focus on the GC in grand tours. Spurred on by Wiggins’ historic Tour win this year, coupled with Kenya-born Chris Froome waiting in the wings, many insiders at Sky say that Cavendish is the odd man out.
This year’s Tour saw Cavendish only have support from right-hand man Bernhard Eisel, who is a trusted confidant and loyal rider, but who is not a true, final leadout man. The rest of the team was dedicated toward helping drive Wiggins into the yellow jersey.
Despite not having great support at the Tour, the irrepressible Cavendish still managed to win three stages, bringing his career haul to 23, fourth on the all-time list and first amongst sprinters.
Cavendish has grumbled that he would have liked more support, but he also acknowledged the history-making opportunity that Sky had to win the Tour with Wiggins. Publicly, Cavendish supported those efforts, but some suggest that he already has one foot out the door.
The list of possible suitors from Cavendish would be surprisingly short, at least for a rider of his caliber.
Few teams have the deep pockets to support Cavendish’s salary (estimated at $3 million per season), plus several support riders and even staffers.
The short list includes BMC Racing, Astana and Omega Pharma, the latter which was already close to signing Cavendish at the end of last season before he confirmed with Sky.
BMC hemorrhaged millions of euros signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd, both of whom have had disappointing season, with just one win between them so far in 2012. Team owner Andy Rihs isn’t shy about spending money, but whether he would want to spend more with Gilbert and Hushovd both on the payroll for next year remains to be seen.
Astana also has the pocketbook as well as the space on its roster to support Cavendish. The arrival of Vincenzo Nibali will give the team a GC option, but the Italian is still seen as a few years off being a true Tour contender. The retirement of Alexander Vinokourov and the fact that Astana rides on Specialized, Cavendish’s preferred bike, also make Astana an option.
But Omega Pharma also ride Specialized and Cavendish is very close to ex-High Road director Brian Holm. The Belgian team could easily refit its classics squad into helping Cavendish in stage races.
The team does not have a true sprinter right now, with Tom Boonen openly admitting his best sprinting days are behind him. Riders like Gert Steegmans and ex-High Road teammates Gerard Ciolek, Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch could all slot in to create a formidable train for Cavendish. All that would be missing would be a final leadout man, such as he had with Mark Renshaw, but Cavendish proved this year that he could still win without a final pull in the sprint.
It’s that kind of speculation that drives Lefevere crazy. The Belgian team manager said that the team’s roster for 2013 is almost already closed.
“Nothing much will change. A few go, a few come,” he said, adding he’s signing a young Spanish rider and a young Belgian rider. “We are satisfied with the team we have had this season.”
The arrival of Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala in 2010 as a key investor and now owner of the team helped give Lefevere the bankroll he needed to fill out the team for 2012 after a disappointing 2011 campaign. Bakala’s checkbook only fuels speculation that Omega Pharma could be Cavendish’s new home.
“We had a new investor come in last year (2010), but it was too late,” Lefevere said. “This is not a project of just one year, but of three years. We like to grow a little bit more each year.”
Lefevere went on a spending spree for 2012, with the arrival of several new riders, including Martin, Grabsch and the Velits brothers as well as Levi Leipheimer. After a hot spring, the team’s success cooled, especially following injuries to GC captains Martin and Leipheimer, who were both struck by cars in separate incidents in the spring.
The revival of Boonen, who dominated the northern classics, seems more than enough for Lefevere, who remains a Belgian at heart. But then, adding Cavendish, who is good for at least 10 wins a season, would complete the Omega Pharma roster and the resurgence Lefevere has captained over the last 10 months.