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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is the first to admit his experiment at taking shots at winning sprints on his own didn’t pan out as he had hoped.
At the end of 2011, after confirming himself as one of the best leadout men in the business, he wanted to be the last man standing. Belkin offered him a chance to sprint, and he left his leadout role setting up Mark Cavendish to forge alone.
Renshaw only managed to win three times, and just as often found himself leading out Dutch sprinter Theo Bos. So when Cavendish came knocking on his door, Renshaw was more than happy to go back to doing what he does best.
“I am looking forward to helping Mark again, not only with myself, but a whole host of other riders,” Renshaw told VeloNews. “Eventually, I was always happy to go back to work with him, but I wanted to a chance to take wins.”
Renshaw, 31, said he has no regrets about his two-year stint at the sharp end of the sprints, but he admits that he is simply better at leading out Cavendish.
“It’s a step forward from last year. It’s a role that comes easy. It’s what I am best at,” he said. “I will get chances, but in the big races, I will be there to help Cav.”
Reunited with Cav
Renshaw was the key component of Cavendish’s dominance in the mass sprints. After honing his leadout skills with Thor Hushovd and Credit Agricole in 2006-2008, he joined High Road to help precocious talent Cavendish, who was already emerging as the best sprinter of his generation.
Renshaw and Cavendish proved a formidable combination. With the entire High Road team at his disposal, when Renshaw led him led him out, Cavendish was all but unbeatable.
In fact, Renshaw said the only rider who beat Cavendish straight up before the end of the 2011 season was Italian Alessandro Petacchi, the veteran Italian who is now part of Cavendish’s revamped train at Omega Pharma.
“The only guy who did that was Petacchi, who beat him more with positioning and being smarter. There was twice in the Giro when Cav got beat by Petacchi, because he waited, and Petacchi jumped him,” Renshaw said. “He might not be stronger or faster, he was smarter.”
Renshaw said he is sure that Cavendish is doubly motivated with the emergence of Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), who won four stages in the 2013 Tour de France, and was perhaps the first rider who came past Cavendish on pure speed.
“He hates it when someone beats him. We saw that Kittel beat him in straight speed and power. We saw Kittel come straight past him in the Tour. That’s going to put fire in his belly this year,” Renshaw explained. “That was the first time. I can imagine Cav never wanted that to happen, so he probably won’t let it happen again.”
The collapse of the High Road team at the end of the 2011 season saw Cavendish’s well-oiled sprint train go off the rails. Renshaw went to Rabobank (later Belkin) and Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch headed to Omega Pharma. Bernie Eisel joined Cavendish at Sky, but with the team focused on the yellow jersey, Cav was soon on the outs.
A move to Omega Pharma in 2013 saw Cavendish at the center of the team’s ambitions yet again, but as Renshaw remained at Belkin as part of a two-year deal, Omega Pharma never quite got its set-up train firing on all cylinders.
Cavendish won five stages and the points jersey at the Giro d’Italia, but “only” won two stages at the Tour as Kittel emerged as the fastest man in the sprints last July.
For Cavendish, bringing back Renshaw was an essential piece of what’s been a major rebuilding effort at Omega Pharma going into 2014.
Renshaw said he quietly sealed a deal with team boss Patrick Lefevere during last year’s Tour to return to his role as Cavendish’s main man in the trenches.
“I think from the day I told him I was leaving two years ago, he’s been asking me to come back. In his eyes, Cav’s always wanted me to return to the team,” Renshaw said. “It was a matter of negotiating the contract.”
Making his season debut at the Santos Tour Down Under this week, Renshaw will try his luck in the sprints, but by the time he lines up alongside Cavendish at the Tour of Dubai next month, it will be a return to what’s familiar.
“I think I will fall back into the role pretty easily,” Renshaw continued. “It’s all a matter of timing and strength. I think the hardest part will be getting that timing back again.”
Few wins, but fewer regrets
Renshaw said he didn’t want to end his career without at least trying to have his shot in the most important races. After turning pro with FDJeux in 2004, he quickly evolved into a top leadout man, working with Hushovd at the Norwegian’s best years at Credit Agricole. A move to High Road in 2009 saw him link up with Cavendish.
Looking back at his two years at Belkin, he has no regrets.
“I got a few opportunities. There were a few opportunities that I missed because I was helping Theo Bos. I cannot say I didn’t get a chance, because I got a lot,” he said. “Last year was a really bad year, probably the worst of my career. I need to put all that behind me. I crashed at the Tour of Turkey. A lot of bad luck, injuries, and sick at the wrong time. I was happy to end the season.”
In 2012, he only won once, but punched into the top-3 some 10 times, meaning he was very close to wins all season long. In 2013, he won twice, but it was a season marked by a heavy crash at the Tour of Turkey in May.
He said his biggest win was the stage he took at the 2013 Eneco Tour. As the season unfolded, Belkin offered him a contract extension, but the team was intent on backing former track star Bos.
“Belkin wanted to continue with Theo, because he’s Dutch. He’s always going to be faster than me,” Renshaw said. “I could see the writing on the wall that they wanted to continue with Theo. At that point, I made a decision about my future. The best offer was from Quick Step to come back. It was a hard decision, but it was an easy decision in the end.”
Rebuilding the perfect train
Going into 2014, Cavendish is poised to have his best set-up train since the 2011 season.
Along with Renshaw and Petacchi, Cavendish will also be able to count on Matteo Trentin, Gert Steegmans, Tony Martin, and possibly Tom Boonen for the sprints during the Tour.
“When he has a reliable team and a reliable leadout, he’s hard to beat,” Renshaw said. “When he’s not winning, he’s not happy. There were a few points when the leadout went wrong.”
Perhaps no one knows Cavendish better than Renshaw. They’ve lived through some intense years together at High Road, a period that saw Cavendish emerge as the world’s best sprinter.
Cavendish has been visibly frustrated on more than a few occasions over the past two years, especially when the sprints were not working out as he hoped.
Renshaw knows the two sides of Cavendish: “Happy Cav,” who lavishes praise when he wins, and “lunatic Cav,” who yells and screams when he loses.
“When guys step up and perform well, he’s the biggest voice of praise of his teammates. On the other side, if you mess up, then he’ll unleash wrath on you,” Renshaw said. “There have been times in my career when we were at heads. We won a lot of races, but there were times when things didn’t go right.
“There is no one in the peloton who looks after his teammates better than Cav,” Renshaw continued. “He can be so hard on one side, on the other, he can be the nicest teammate ever. They go hand in hand, because he expects the best. When you give him the best, he gives the most praise ever.”
Renshaw also said it would be wrong to assume that Cavendish is somehow missing a step in the sprints. Despite the emergence of Kittel, Renshaw said Cavendish is still the fastest sprinter in the bunch.
“Last year, it was really up and down for Cav. He copped a lot of criticism, but he won five stages and the points jersey at the Giro, then he wins a couple of stages at the Tour, but he gets beat a few times, then all of a sudden it’s a shit year,” Renshaw said.
“I’d lose a couple of fingers to win those races. They criticize him a lot. He’s getting older. Maybe it’s hard to perform in every race. One grand tour is enough in the year, whether it’s five in the Giro or five in the Tour.”
With Renshaw back in the lead, it’s hard not to imagine that Cavendish will not rack up wins. The pair is ready to strut their stuff. The first date will be the Tour of Dubai in February.