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The ‘It’ Couple: Can Boonen and Cavendish work?

Former world champs Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish are two of the surest bets in the sport, but can they work together?

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Mark Cavendish, fastest man on a bike. Tom Boonen, best man in the classics. The two ride for the same team now. Both are absolute stars, and are in the top of the class in their respective disciplines. Both are former road world champions and have won the Tour de France’s maillot vert.

And now, they’re effectively housemates, sharing the turquoise of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Boonen is a cobbles master, taking a sprint that was at times the best in the business and parlaying it into long-range classics artillery. At six-foot-four and 180 pounds, his combination of size and speed is truly remarkable.

Cavendish, well, everyone knows about Cavendish — he’s the best sprinter in the world. Yes, André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), and a handful of others challenged him last year, but if one were to bet a house on a bike race, Cavendish would be the smart pick in a drag race. Cavendish proved that much freelancing his way to three stage wins at the Tour de France last year with limited help on a Sky team driven for general classification results (which it of course achieved).

Tommeke’s palmarès include four Paris-Roubaix wins and three Ronde van Vlaanderen crowns, in addition to six stage wins at the Tour. Cavendish? Just 36 stage wins at the three grand tours, including 23 stages at the Tour, and the points classifications at the 2011 Tour and 2010 Vuelta a España. He muted his ambitions last year at the Tour in favor of Bradley Wiggins’ pursuit of yellow, stuffing his rainbow shirt with bottle after bottle. Wiggins paid him back with a superb leadout, in yellow, to win his third stage on the Champs Élysées.

That’s an awful lot of hardware for a few team cars to haul around, not to mention the expectations of both men. Can the two work together? Doesn’t it have that feel of two impossibly attractive stars dating one another, destined for a heated blowout and pictures on TMZ?

Don’t bet on it. The two are entirely different riders at this point in their careers, and the only time we may see a conflict of interest is a race like Milan-San Remo. Cavendish has won “la classica di Primavera” before, but thus far it’s eluded the Belgian.

A dream scenario? If Cavendish can stay in the bunch over Le Manie, slip Boonen up the road late. If the move holds, like it did for Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), and Vincenzo Nibali (Cannondale) in 2012, the big Belgian sprints from a smaller group — his specialty at this point — and Cav and the rest of the boys have a free ride with a hard-charging field. The “Manx Missile” could take a drag race on the Italian Riviera if it comes to it.

Brian Holm, a Cavendish confidante and now his director at Omega Pharma, said thus far the relationship between the two is going well.

“I think Cav has good leadership skills; he fits in very good. It’s not just something I’m saying, because of course I have to say it. But he is fitting in extremely good. I just spoke to him — he said he loves it here,” Holm told VeloNews from training camp in Spain earlier this month. “I think they’re fine. I haven’t asked too much about it. Tom, he’s kind of a nice guy, you know. And with Cav and Tom, I hope, maybe I’m wrong, that they’re going to work very good together.”

As a director, it has the potential to be a dream (Cavendish and Boonen are proven winners, end of story) but also a management conundrum. Team boss Patrick Lefevere’s chips have been with Boonen for years, and he’s delivered, twice doubling up at the Hell of the North and Flanders. Cavendish’s sprint is a known quantity: put him in position and he’s more likely than anyone to get a win. In a sport of uncertainly, Omega Pharma finds itself with two of the surer bets in the game.

“I’m proud to work with Cav and Tom Boonen, two former world champions. And they do very different races. They have different focuses. Tom will go for the big classics, and Cav for the classics, but more like Scheldeprijs. Where they could come together would be Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem,” Holm said. “I think we have a pretty good chance; one more card, one more bullet in the gun.”

With Boonen missing next week’s Tour of Qatar after undergoing elbow surgery to stem an infection, Cavendish will have his chance to run rampant over a race the Belgian has dominated. We’ll have to wait a while longer to see Omega Pharma’s new hand play out at the tables.