Though he’s not yet sure which races he’ll be using as preparation, Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinter Mark Cavendish is certain of one thing heading into the 2014 season — he wants to wear yellow at the Tour de France.
Specifically, he wants to wear the maillot jaune on July 5, on British soil, in his mother’s hometown.
For a rider who, at just 28, has already won a world championship and Milano-Sanremo and worn the Tour’s green jersey in Paris, for Cavendish there remains one objective that trumps all others — Tour de France stage wins.
And though he’s worn the leader’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, and he’s won a staggering 25 stages across seven Tour starts, Cavendish has never donned the hallowed maillot jaune.
The opening three stages of this year’s Tour will be held in Great Britain, with a flat finish in Harrogate on stage 1, an opportunity for Cavendish to take both the stage win and the yellow jersey — and to do it in his mother’s hometown.
In all there are nine flat stages that could potentially end in field sprints at this year’s Tour, but there’s one that matters most to Cavendish. In January, Cavendish told The Independent the stage finishing in Harrogate is “going to be what my whole season is built around.”
Asked about the stress involved in basing one’s entire season around one field sprint — particularly on a nervous opening stage where every sprinter will be gunning for the yellow jersey — Cavendish said that heavy expectations are all part of the game for a team leader in one of the biggest sporting events on the planet.
“Every sprint I do, I have pressure on me,” Cavendish said, speaking to a small group of reporters at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina on January 24. “It’s irrelevant where it is, I want to win Tour de France stages. I want to go and be successful wherever that is, but on a personal note, winning in my mum’s hometown is a big thing. It doesn’t add pressure, it doesn’t change anything; it would just be extra special.”
Perhaps Omega Pharma management’s expectations for Cavendish will be amplified in 2014, however, now that the team has signed Italian Alessandro Petacchi and Australian Mark Renshaw, both with the intent to lead the former world champion through the chaos and deliver him to the final 250 meters in perfect position. Last year Cavendish won two Tour stages, a success by almost any measure, however Cavendish is not almost any sprinter; it was his lowest stage win tally at a Tour since he abandoned his maiden Tour in 2007 winless after eight stages.
Cavendish had won at least three stages at every Tour from 2008 through 2012, and had won on the Champs-Élysées at every Tour over that five-year span. In 2013, however, it was German Marcel Kittel emerging as the most successful sprinter of the Tour de France, winning four stages, including the prestigious final stage in Paris.
Cavendish was in Argentina alongside several members of his sprint train, including Petacchi, Tom Boonen, and Stijn Vandenbergh. Before the race had started, Cavendish stated that the team would sprint for Boonen. And with three flat finishes and the strongest sprint team in the race, at least one victory seemed assured.
The stage win never materialized, however. Petacchi abandoned the first stage due to a stomach illness, and when the entire peloton looked to Omega Pharma to bring back the breakaway, the team refused, allowing the stage win to slip away. On stage 3 Cavendish led out Boonen, but the big Belgian came around into a headwind too early, and settled for third behind stage winner Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing). On stage 7, Boonen was out of position coming into the final turn and finished ninth behind stage winner Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida).
“It was a shame to lose Alessandro, just to get into the swing of things,” Cavendish said. “We came here, we wanted to win, we had the ability to win, but it was really to get the rhythm into our legs. We didn’t come here to test the leadout, we came here to get the form.”
The race program that will bring Cavendish form en route to the July 5 grand depart in Leeds, he said, is wide open.
This week he will race at the inaugural Dubai Tour, organized by Giro d’Italia owner RCS Sport, but he’s not sure if he’ll return to the Giro, where he won five stages and took the points classification last year.
Like the Tour, this year’s Giro also begins in the United Kingdom — in Northern Ireland, with two stages in Belfast, before a third leg that starts in Armagh and crosses the border to Dublin.
“I really don’t know if I’m racing [The Giro]. I don’t know where I’m racing past Dubai,” Cavendish said. “Sometimes, last year, I was tired but still went to a race. It eventually grinds you down by the end of the sixth month of the year. So we really want to keep an eye on it and make sure I’m going super good for the Tour.”
“It’s not worth being tired,” he continued. “When I raced the Tour last year, I had already raced 60 days. It’s quite a lot. So I want to physically be in better preparation for it this year. Omega Pharma has really invested money, and time, into me and my leadout men. We’re leaving my race program open so we can really look at it in quite sure terms. I’m lucky I’m in a team that’s willing to do that. I don’t really know my race program; it’s really quite open, depending on how I feel.”
If Cavendish stands atop the podium in yellow in Harrogate, everything he will have done to get there will appear to have been perfectly executed. If he doesn’t, he’ll no doubt look upon his 2014 season as a disappointment. Such is the reality for a 28-year-old former bank teller who has already accomplished more than any sprinter could have ever dreamed. No pressure.