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EDMONTON, Alberta (VN) — Mark Renshaw (Belkin) is at ease as he nurses a cappuccino and talks about his last two difficult years as a pro, the equally difficult decision that led to them, and the much easier choice to return to the role in which he has no equal.
As sprint stages begin Wednesday in the inaugural Tour of Alberta, the 30-year-old Australian says there are still a few chances left for him to finish what he started when he struck out his own with the then-Rabobank team two seasons ago: namely, to win. For himself.
To be Mark Renshaw, sprinter in his own right. Not Mark Renshaw, the best leadout man in the world.
In the former role, he says he has grown as a rider and knows infinitely more about his sport and himself than when he was in the latter, opening holes for Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) on the now-defunct HTC-Highroad team.
And yet, he told VeloNews, “To be honest, it’s only about the results. I didn’t come here to make friends or enjoy myself, I came here to get results. Of course, I’ve made great friends on the team and I have enjoyed myself, but it’s not what the spectators want to see. They want to see victories.”
There have been three: a stage win at the Presidential Tour of Turkey last year, victory at the Classica de Almeria in 2013, and a stage at the Eneco Tour in August. Knocked flat by a virus in the days after his Eneco victory, Renshaw was forced to skip the Vuelta a España and retool the end of his season, which finds him here on the Canadian plains. At season’s end he’ll return to more familiar — and, he says, much easier — surroundings, once again by Cavendish’s side, this time at Omega Pharma. There, they’ll hope to recreate the magic that revealed Cavendish as the world’s fastest man and Renshaw as the best sprint lieutenant, a nearly unbeatable pair when they hit the finishing straight.
It will be like old times. Except, Renshaw says, that it won’t. Former Highroad teammates André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) now headline their own teams, as do young guns Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
“I think it’s going to be more pressure. I think everyone expects we’ll do everything we did at HTC, and I don’t think that’ll happen,” he said. “Now we have Lotto, we have Argos, we have a lot of other teams that have invested a lot of time and money into building sprint trains. I’d love to go back and have the same success we had at HTC but I think it’s going to be harder.”
The job of reassuming their joint position atop the peloton’s sprint tandems will be no harder than the decision Renshaw made at the end of 2011, when HTC had imploded and its stable of talent scattered in the wind. Cavendish jumped to Sky in what seemed like a no-brainer decision. Courted by Rabobank, Renshaw’s was not as easy.
“It was a moment where I got to take a chance to race for myself, so I took it,” he said. “If went to Sky with Cav, which was an option, then I’d still be there now and still be doing the same role, and probably be doing it as good as ever. But I didn’t want to finish my career without having the opportunity to try for myself.”
And so Renshaw did, but the magic was lost in the translation. He crashed out of the Tour de France in 2012, then broke a collarbone in Turkey in April. Sidelined during this year’s Tour, he confirmed what most observers had felt was a foregone conclusion by announcing a reunion with Cavendish for 2014.
“To be honest, he probably knew I’d want to come back, and deep down I knew that if I didn’t win 10 races a year I’d probably be back doing the same thing,” Renshaw said. “And I told him when I made the decision that I had to take the chance to do it. We probably both knew it. He wasn’t overjoyed, but he knew I’d have to try.”
Cavendish left Sky after one season, not content to be a fifth wheel — although a fast one — on a team geared toward grand tour victories. And next season he’ll once again have the man who, by his own admission, is uniquely suited to be the best supporting rider.
“For me it’s the easiest role. It’s right up my alley,” Renshaw said. “I produce a lot of power for a long time, but I don’t produce huge power like Greipel and I don’t have maximum acceleration like Cav. I fall between the fast guys and the strong guys. With a good head and the advantage of pushing a lot of power for a great amount of time, it’s right up my alley to be a leadoff man.”
He’s quick to point out, though, that he won’t be the same leadoff man as he used to be. Better, he feels.
“I have definitely grown as a rider, that’s for sure,” he said. “I climb better, prepare myself better, with diet, with training camps at altitude, with having a full-time soigneur at home, so on the whole I think I’m a lot better than I was at HTC.”
There is, though, unfinished business. Renshaw has five sprint stages this week in Alberta to try to beat Sagan, the Slovak who is both a heavy sprint and GC favorite. Renshaw says he can, if he can recover the form he showed when he finished second by an eyelash to Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) on stage 3 of the Tour of Poland in late July and then beat Greipel at Eneco in August. Then he’ll race two smaller European races before finishing with Belkin at Paris-Tours in October.
“If I look back over the last couple of months, a second to Hushovd and the stage win at Eneco, it’d be nice to also win a stage here and be successful in Paris-Tours,” he said. “I want to finish the season really well, because it’s the last chance I have to get a few victories.
“I mean victories, you know, for myself.”