Northern classics on radar for Cavendish

Mark Cavendish wants to be more than the world’s fastest sprinter and is planning to widen his net to include a run for glory over the pavé of the northern classics.

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Mark Cavendish wants to be more than the world’s fastest sprinter and is planning to widen his net to include a run for glory over the pavé of the northern classics.

That won’t happen this year, or perhaps not even before the 2012 London Olympic Games, where Cavendish will line up as a huge favorite on home roads, but that isn’t stopping the Cannonball to begin to lay the groundwork in his quest for cobblestone success.

The HTC-Columbia ace will race Tour of Flanders this year for the first time to get a taste of the punishing climbs and cobblestones.

He says he doesn’t expect to win Flanders in his first crack, one of cycling’s most grueling and hard-fought races, but didn’t he say that last year at Milan-San Remo?

“I’m not going to Flanders to win,” he said last week during the team’s training camp in Mallorca. “I’m a realist. Maybe in the future, it’s possible (to win), but I am a realist.”

Cavendish is the first to admit that Flanders is no Milan-San Remo, which he won last year in dazzling fashion in a photo-finish to Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam).

Flanders’ bergs, distance, wind, intensity and crowds are all at an altogether higher level of suffering than San Remo, which is a like a bottle of champagne that’s slowly shaken up before finally popping its cork coming over Cipressa and the Poggio.

“I’ll try to win San Remo again … but I’m saying I won’t win Flanders,” he continued. “I’m not just saying it wouldn’t be a disappointment, I can’t win (Flanders). I’m not physically capable yet, so that is a race that you need experience for.”

Cavendish admits the aggressive racing style at the classics attracts him.

One of his favorite races of the year is the Monte Paschi Eroica across the gravel roads of Italy simply because it’s a mano-a-mano duel between individual riders instead of hiding the peloton and relying on teammates in a lead-out train for a mass sprint.

“Eroica is one of my favorite races because I go there and race,” he said. “If you’re a sprinter, you try to save as much energy as possible, so you sit in the group and then wait for the sprint.”

Cavendish has already dabbled in the Belgian classics, twice racing Ghent-Wevelgem (which he will start again this year) as well Scheldeprijs, where he took a breakthrough victory in 2007 to herald his arrival on the world stage.

He plans to widen his skill-set and increase his power to challenge for victory in cycling’s most important and prestigious one-day classics at Flanders. And Paris-Roubaix might not be too far behind.

His success at Milan-San Remo last year has only whetted his appetite. He called San-Remo, along with the final stage victory down the Champs-Elysées, the most important wins of his 20-plus-victory season.

Despite the allure, sprint-friendly courses on tap at the next two world championships in Australia and Denmark as well as the possibility of a massive victory on home roads for the 2012 Olympics in London might delay his classics ambitions.

The HTC-Columbia brain-trust says it doesn’t make sense for Cavendish to divert his attention from his dominance in sprinting, at least not yet any way.

“Cavendish is young and he will have plenty of time to try to win races like Flanders or Roubaix or some of the other classics,” said HTC-Columbia sport director Rolf Aldag. “He can begin to gain experience now, because it takes several years of racing these races before you can begin to try to win. And he can win a big race like the worlds or the Olympics, or both, right now.”

And the prospect of their star rider tumbling onto the cobbles is also something HTC-Columbia — which has bet a huge part of the team at Cavendish’s disposal — doesn’t even want to risk. So much so, they have quietly urged him to hold off a first-run at Paris-Roubaix.

With Flanders this year, Cavendish will also be honing his skills on the cobblestones, an experience that he hopes will pay off in July when the Tour de France hits the pavé in stage 3 of the 2010 edition.

But he says Flanders also presents a unique opportunity to work for his teammates.

Cavendish is effusive about how much the team, with its near-perfect lead-out train, makes his job easy.

“The experience will be good for me, plus it will be nice to ride for the team,” he said. “It’s a race I can actually ride for the team and I don’t get many opportunities to do that.”

Most of the year, his teammates are flogging for him to win sprints, so at Flanders, he wants to return the favor, at least this year, anyway.