By Andrew Hood
Mark Cavendish isn’t expecting to win his first crack at Milan-San Remo, but he’s getting some advice from someone who has.
Four-time winner Erik Zabel has been quietly working and training with the British sprinter since retiring.
Cavendish is expecting that expert advice to pay dividends sooner than later.
“He knows every race by the back of his hand, so it’s perfect for me,” Cavendish told VeloNews. “It takes away at least one year for experience. We’re talking and training together all the time, at the races or after.”
The 38-year-old Zabel (spotted by VeloNews riding on the San Remo course on Thursday) finally hung up the cleats for good, but was close to signing a one-year deal with Columbia-Highroad.
Team boss Bob Stapleton said Cavendish embraced the idea of bringing on Zabel as a technical advisor.
“He’s really helping Cav understand the tactics and what it takes to win these bigger, longer races,” Stapleton said. “Mark is doing fine in the bunch sprints, but with the longer distances of the classics, he still has a lot to learn. Zabel is perfect in that role.”
Cavendish rode the final 100km of the route twice with Zabel, including the Maniè, Cipressa and Poggio climbs. The veteran German is patiently giving Cavendish little pointers and tips about positioning, on who to follow and where to use his strength.
“I got the impression I can win it in the future, but maybe not this year,” Cavendish says flatly. “If you race the finish after 100km, then it’s not so bad, but the new climb, the Maniè, it’s really hard. When you do the final after that long of distance, then it’s extremely difficult for me. In the future, I think it’s possible to win.”
A climb too far?No one doubts Cavendish’s speed in the sprint finish.
In the final stage of Tirreno on Tuesday, Cavendish made easy work of Daniele Bennati, the Liquigas rider who’s being touted by many as the top favorite Saturday.
It’s the longer distance of Milan-San Remo that makes Cavendish think twice about winning, at least this year.
“Three hundred kilometers at 23 is a long way,” he said. “MSR is one of the biggest races I the world and I have to show the respect it deserves.
One major difference for Cavendish this year is that he didn’t spend all winter on the track. Instead of racing ovals, he was putting in 100-200km training riders. His race weight now is 69kg, the same weight he finished last year’s Giro, not his typical 73kg coming off the track.
“I am much stronger this year than last year. A lot of people think I am not as fast, but I am arriving to the finish line a lot fresher,” he said. “I worked a lot on my climbing and weight. It’s paying off this year.”
Columbia-Highroad sport director Allan Peiper said the team isn’t putting pressure on Cavendish. The team can also count on experienced hands such as George Hincapie, Maxime Monfort and Bernard Eisel to represent the team colors in the decisive moments.
“We cannot say we’re going to build the whole team around him, but it’s interesting to see how he goes. He’s good, he’s really motivated for it and super focused,” Peiper told VeloNews. “He’s climbing well and he hasn’t lost any speed before of it, so we’re in with a chance. We’re going to put a few guys with him at the Manie and if he does need some help coming back, they will be there for him.”
Despite Cavendish’s assertion that he’s stronger than ever, he had some trouble staying with the pack on some of the climbs at the recent Tirreno-Adriatico.
That was something that didn’t go unnoticed by some of the insiders.
“If he’s getting dropped in a 145km stage on the climbs here at Tirreno, then it’s too early for him (at San Remo),” said Astana sport director Dirk Demol. “Maybe in a few more years he can gain the experience he needs to try to win a San Remo.”
Paris-Roubaix also in plansLaying the groundwork this year is what it’s all about for Cavendish and the Columbia-Highroad team.
Cavendish insists his first crack at the 298km San Remo is more about upcoming editions, without discounting his chances if he makes it to the line with the front group.
“It’s about getting experience. I won’t be disappointed if I don’t get result. I will give 100 percent, but I don’t have any pressure to get any result,” he continued. “It’s like when I did the Tour in 2007 and Ghent-Wevelgem last year, I am just riding it to get the experience. If I get a result, great, if not, no big deal.”
After San Remo, he’ll be the rookie again at Paris-Roubaix, another race he hopes will figure highly in his medium to long-term future.
“Just I did Ghent and De Panne last year, then I will have a shot at Roubaix, that’s not for anything, that’s just because I want to ride it, I’d like to try to help the team,” he said. “I am just riding because I love to ride. I do them because I am still young and I still enjoy it, maybe I can target them in the future.”
His desire to tackle demanding, challenging races like San Remo and Roubaix reveal Cavendish’s strength of character, ambition and passion for racing.
It’s obvious the Manxster loves to race.
For the rest of the season, Cavendish heads back to familiar territory at the Tour of Romandie, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de Suisse and then the Tour de France.
“I want to win as many races as I can,” he concluded. “I am doing every big race on the calendar this year. It’s a heavy schedule. There will be the best riders at every race. It will be more difficult to win.”