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Making the grade: How the sprinters stack up

In our midseason report card for the sprinters, Cav is still the king of speed, but many are nipping at his heels

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Midway through the 2012 season, Mark Cavendish is still the king of kick, but he’s seeing unprecedented challenges from all sides.

Cavendish’s seven wins on the year are all quality, more than worthy of his world champion’s jersey he so proudly wears, but it’s been a sometimes-bumpy road in his transition to Team Sky.

This season has seen him stutter more than a few times, including an abysmal Milan-San Remo and his gutsy, yet uneven ride through the Giro d’Italia, but as always, the Merry Manxster comes through when it really counts.

“This Giro will help me prepare for the most important goals of the season,” Cavendish said at the end of the Giro last week, referring to the Tour de France and the Olympic Games. “I am still not at peak form. The chance to ride for the gold medal in my home country is really what’s motivating me this season.”

Cavendish, 26, has more than lived up to the rainbow jersey so far this season, with seven quality wins on the year in what’s been a very interesting season amongst the fast-twitch sprinters.

“Cannonball” proved there’s no rainbow jersey curse with two victories in Qatar to open the season before dashing to a semi-classic win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and another at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Three more wins came in a rough-and-tumble Giro d’Italia that saw Cavendish ride with pride all the way to Milan when many of the other sprinters took an early exit. He rode his guts out to make it through the demanding final week, losing the points jersey bitterly by just one point to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).

When ex-pro Mario Cipollini threw barbs his way, accusing him of being less-than-professional, Cavendish just laughed in disbelief. There’s no doubt, especially in his mind, who is the fastest man in the bunch.

Not all is perfect in Cav’s world, however. Beyond KBK, his classics season was disappointing, including an implosion at Milan-San Remo that he characterized as the “worst day on the bike” of his career.

The Sky train is still a work in progress and Cavendish proved he’s beatable at the Giro when he doesn’t receive a clean delivery to the line.

Even worse, there is still no clear leadout man for Cavendish going into the Tour. The rider who seems best suited for that job – Geraint Thomas – is skipping the Tour to prepare for the Olympic track events. How successfully others, such as Edvald Boasson Hagen or Chris Sutton, can slot into that role largely untested remains to be seen.

Cavendish shrugged off his loss to Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) in stage 18 in the Giro due to “laziness,” but that was the first time all season Cavendish was beaten straight up to the line.

Sensing an opening, other teams threw down against Cavendish at the Giro, namely Orica-GreenEdge and Saxo Bank, but with only mixed results.

When Cavendish was in the sprint, he won three times. He crashed two other times, took one corner too hot when Roberto Ferrari (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) took a win at Montecetini, and was handed a dose of his own medicine when the upstart Guardini came bursting past his right shoulder in Vedelago. Cavendish could only pound his fist in disbelief.

More than anything at the Giro, Cavendish proved he can still win even when things go slightly off the rails, something that will be vital during the Tour, when Sky will line up with a strong GC team to support Bradley Wiggins’ run for the yellow jersey.

Gorilla, Super-Sagan ready to throw down

No one doubts that Cavendish is still the point of reference in the bunch sprints. Few can equal his lethal acceleration at top-end speed. His aerodynamic position and excellent team support make it almost impossible to beat him.

That certainly hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. After all, that’s what the guys get paid to do.

Cavendish’s early season inconsistency will make the Tour de France even more tantalizing in what should be an intense, fascinating battle for bragging rights among the sprinters.

With a rough first week out of Liège, Belgium, full of stages favoring more classics-style riders that could see the pure sprinters challenged by the likes of Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), it’s hard to say how many shots the sprinters will actually get on the road to Paris.

With Team Sky devoting the majority of its resources to Wiggins, it will be interesting to see who steps up to control the sprint stages.

Two riders have shown they’re up for the challenge of taking on Cavendish, with ex-teammate André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) both sharpening their knives for July.

Greipel, 29, leads the winner’s tally among the sprinters with 11 victories on the season, though only three of them have come at the elite, WorldTour level (each at the Tour Down Under to open the season). Greipel steered clear of a showdown with Cavendish at the Giro, racing instead at the Tour of Belgium due to sponsorship obligations.

Greipel is sounding confident, however, telling VeloNews that he is not afraid of Cavendish and expects to win “at least one stage” during the Tour and “why not more?”

“I did it already last year,” Greipel said about beating Cavendish in the Tour. “If Sky does not control the sprints, perhaps we will. It depends on how many riders the team brings for me to the Tour.”

Greipel faces a similar quandary as Cavendish and will have to split the team with GC hope Jurgen van den Broeck, fourth overall in 2010, who will be making an all-out push for the final podium. Greipel is hoping to bring at least a few good men, with the likes of Greg Henderson, Lars Bak and Marcel Sieberg likely to get the nod for the Tour.

There’s no question that the muscle-bound Greipel has the power to beat Cavendish, and he’s sounding more confident than ever this year. He did not, however, get a win at Tirreno-Adriatico when he lined up against Cavendish and he somewhat flat through the classics.

The other rider breathing down Cavendish’s neck is Sagan, who will be making his long-anticipated Tour debut this year with Liquigas-Cannondale.

Sagan, 22, has eight wins on the season, with five coming at a dominant week when he was untouched in the sprints at the Amgen Tour of California. Sagan was equally strong throughout the spring, picking up a win at Tirreno en route to delivering teammate Vincenzo Nibali to overall victory and before having an impressive run through the spring classics, capped by the podium at Amstel Gold Race.

Sagan, however, could have a tough time in the pure sprints when he’s sure to be out-gunned by the trains of Sky, Lotto-Belisol and Orica-GreenEdge. Liquigas will have a man or two to help him find his place in the final kilometer, with Daniel Oss likely getting the task of piloting the young Slovak.

Sagan has proven he can win in any terrain, in pure bunch sprints to hilly, classics-style finales, so he will be the one man that Cavendish will truly have to keep an eye on.

Goss, Renshaw still searching for comfort spot

Two of Cavendish’s ex-teammates have found it’s not as easy as they had hoped going up against their old boss.

Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) have each struck out on their own with mixed results after the collapse of High Road last season.

Each of the Aussies has just one win in their respective 2012 season, and in a discipline where wins count for everything, that’s a rather paltry return against high expectations.

Both had their reasons. Goss, 25, was knocked back by illness in the spring campaign and notched five second-places in a row before punching through to victory in stage 3 at the Giro. Renshaw, meanwhile, has been feeling his way into his new role as the lead sprinter after years developing a reputation as the best leadout man in the business.

Renshaw, who was Cavendish’s pilot for four seasons, took the chance to lead at Rabobank with gusto. He’s been knocking at the door of a big win all season, with scores of top-fives before finally getting his victory at the Presidential Tour of Turkey in a photo finish against Goss.

Renshaw, 29, has also been sharing sprint duties through the first half of the season with ex-trackie Theo Bos, who will not be going to the Tour de France. Bos won two stages in Turkey thanks to immaculate work by Renshaw to lead him out. The pair went into the Giro planning to work together, but Bos crashed hard in stage 2, with injuries later diagnosed as a cracked veterbra.

“I have no regrets about taking this chance with Rabobank,” Renshaw told VeloNews during the Tour of Turkey. “If I wanted a chance to win, I knew I would have to leave Mark. We have no problems between us. He understands why I did it and we’re still friends.”

Goss, meanwhile, will have huge pressure on his shoulders to deliver at least one victory in the sprints during the Tour.

Orica-GreenEdge will not have a GC rider, so the start-up Aussie team will be banking on Goss and opportunists such as Simon Gerrans to score a stage victory.

With its pronouncement that stage wins are the only target for the Tour, Orica will likely have the most formidable train in France. The peloton got a good look at what’s in store during the Giro, when Daryl Impey and Brett Lancaster gave Team Sky a run for the money on the rails in the final kilometers.

In the psychological battle that’s often just as important as the physical, Goss will go into the Tour knowing he still hasn’t beaten Cavendish head-to-head.

His lone win in the Giro came in the crash-marred third stage, when Ferrari swept out the front wheel of Cavendish in the final dash to the line. Goss scored two other second-places during the Giro before abandoning after stage 13, both times second to — who else — Cavendish.

“I know it’s hard to beat Cav, but I know I can do it,” Goss told VeloNews earlier this season. “When we can knock him off his train and he has to come over the top, that’s when it’s harder for him. That’s when we have the best chance to beat him.”

Looking for breakout: Farrar, Petacchi and Kittel

Behind those leading four challengers, there are another half-dozen contenders trying to knock Cavendish off his sprint throne.

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) crashed out of the Giro in stage 6 with a heavy cut to his hand and went home without more opportunities during Garmin’s otherwise wildly successful Giro.

Farrar, 28, is winless on the 2012 season, despite nine top-fives throughout the year, including second at GP Scheldeprijs. The American bet heavily on the spring classics, just missed the big win in Antwerp, and was hoping to kick to victory during the Giro.

Robbie Hunter, who has been Farrar’s pilot during much of the first half of the season, says it’s only a matter of time before Farrar gets a win.

“He’s been right there all season. Sometimes it’s just a question of a little bit of luck, and everything can change overnight,” Hunter told VeloNews. “We’ve been doing the work. Farrar’s already one that (has beaten Cav at the Tour). He knows he can do it. It’s a matter of just keep getting into the sprints.”

Another rider looking for salvation during the Tour will be aging ace Alessandro Petacchi. Lampre-ISD left him at home in May, in part to bring a strong GC team to the Giro, but also because Petacchi fell ill during the spring and only returned to racing at the Tour of Turkey a week before the Italian grand tour.

At 38, Petacchi admits he’s no longer the force he was when he was winning 20 sprints a year and challenging for the points jerseys in the grand tours. Petacchi finally punched into the winner’s column last month, with three stages at the Bayern Rundfahrt, and vows to be a factor during the Tour.

“I know I cannot win 20 races like I did before. There are less and less chances for the sprinters. There are more teams fighting for the sprints,” Petacchi told VeloNews. “I know I can still make a good sprint. When I have a train, I can be at the front and make my sprint. It’s always difficult to win. But when I have my train, I can make my sprint to try to win. “

Along with Sagan, this year’s Tour will also see Marcel Kittel making a highly anticipated debut in the French tour.

The 24-year-old Kittel has won five races this year, including his photo-finish duel against Farrar at Scheldeprijs, but was schooled by Sagan at the Tour of California. Kittel will be sharing sprint duties with John Degenkolb, another former Cavendish teammate who has also won five races this year.

“My dream is to win on the Champs-Élysées,” Kittel told VeloNews. “I do not expect that to happen this year. I know the Tour is very hard. I want to go to the race and learn about the Tour. Of course, I will try in the sprints, but the most important thing is to get to know the Tour. I know in the future the wins will come.”

Others will be nipping at the edges. Oscar Freire (Katusha), JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank), José Rojas (Movistar) and a few French riders will be throwing elbows to the line.

Grades are in. Some riders, like Renshaw and Petacchi have work to do. Others, like Greipel and Sagan, have proven capable of acing the big-time sprints. No matter who lines up at the Tour, everyone knows there is only one man to beat, and that’s Cavendish.

Editor’s Note: In this story, we listed Mark Renshaw’s first name as Matt. This is, of course, an error that we regret.