Mark Cavendish sizes up the competition for 2011

At HTC team camp in California, sprinter Mark Cavendish assesses his biggest challengers as he eyes the 2011 season.

HTC-Columbia sprinter Mark Cavendish has long maintained that he doesn’t look for his rivals when he’s sprinting — he looks for the finish line.

2010 Tour de France, stage 20, Mark Cavendish
Cavendish may be brash, but he's got the record to back it up. | Graham Watson photo

Nonetheless, he’s aware of who’s there at the business end of the bike race, and what their respective teams did or didn’t do to set them up. This week at HTC’s team camp at Specialized’s California headquarters, Cavendish called Alessandro Petacchi his “most clever” rival, and gave his thoughts on what he expected from Tyler Farrar, Thor Hushovd and Andre Greipel in 2011.

At the Tour de France this year, Cavendish racked up five more stage wins and placed second in the green jersey competition to Petacchi.

“[Petacchi] is absolutely still a rival. He’s the cleverest of my rivals,” said Cavendish.

While Petacchi may not necessarily be stronger, Cavendish said, “he’s got the brain to outsmart me.”

Petacchi’s doping case recently expanded to include the entire family of a teammate.

Whatever the outcome of that case, Cavendish will face off against other sprinters at the Tour Down Under, the kick-off to the 2011 season. Among his expected rivals there are former teammate Greipel, who is now with Omega Pharma-Lotto, and Farrar.

After trading barbs with Greipel in the press earlier this season, Cavendish was reserved in his speculative comments about sprinting against the German, who has twice won the Tour Down Under.

“I am looking forward to racing against him,” Cavendish said, and left it at that.

Cavendish expanded a bit more on speculation about what Farrar and Hushovd racing together on the new merger Garmin-Cervélo team could mean for field sprints in 2011.

“Hopefully Garmin will start to ride now,” Cavendish said, referring to the team doing work to reel in breaks on race days that end in sprints. “[Garmin] started to ride at the end of the year. It was probably a good thing that Tyler beat me a couple of times; Garmin actually started to ride for a change. Hopefully that will continue with both of them there.”

2010 Tour de France stage 4. Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish
Cavendish regards Petacchi as his 'most clever' rival

As to whether Farrar and Hushovd would be complementary or divisive as teammates, Cavendish said that wasn’t his concern.

“I don’t know, it’s up to them,” he said. “I’m not looking at other people, I’m looking at the finish line. That’s the mistake that all them other guys make. They look at someone else, not the finish line. We just look to take the race on, that’s why we succeed.”

After the Tour Down Under in January, Cavendish will head to the pancake-flat Tour of Qatar, the “white” gravel roads of Monte Paschi Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, which he won in 2009. Cavendish hasn’t said whether he’ll race the Giro d’Italia or the Amgen Tour of California, but the Tour de France is of course on the docket.

Cavendish is also interested to return to the spring classics, races that he said have captured his imagination ever since he’s been a cyclist. After taking aim at the Tour of Flanders in January, Cavendish participated but did not finish the April race that falls the week before Paris-Roubaix.

Besides the legacy of these events, Cavendish is interested in racing the spring classics to ride for his teammates, he said.

“They are the only races were I can actually help guys,” he said. “I want to race, you know? I miss that. I’ve been so well protected. My team does all my work for me — they’re incredible guys — and I don’t really have to do anything anymore. I kind of miss that. I want to be able to get involved in the racing, help someone else and get some experience in those races I’ve been wanting to do since I turned pro but I wasn’t allowed.”

But at the races with sprint finishes, Cavendish will be back in his familiar role — sitting behind the HTC train, waiting to turn on the gas in the final meters. The confidence is not lacking.

“When I’m at 100 percent and the team does everything right,” Cavendish said, “no one is going to beat me.”