Comment: It will take innovation not imitation to wrong-foot Cavendish

Should Lotto and the other teams ditch their lead-out trains to make sprints even more complicated for Cavendish?

Words: Lionel Birnie in Tournai

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Received wisdom is often not very wise at all. Sometimes ideas need to be placed under close scrutiny before being adopted.

Look at the number of riders who are now wearing aerodynamic helmets with the vents filled in. That is an example of a sound idea that has been copied.

Neither Mark Cavendish, Team Sky or British Cycling invented aerodynamics, nor are they the only people to whom the laws of physics apply.

But Cavendish wore a special aerodynamic helmet at the World Championships last September, partly at the suggestion of his friend and former Madison partner Rob Hayles, and partly because the laws of physics say that it could add up to an important energy saving over the course of a six-hour race. That energy saving might make only a millimetre’s difference, but in sprinting sometimes that is the key difference.

Since Cavendish won the world title others riders, including Andre Greipel, some of his Lotto team-mates and a few of the Rabobank riders have started to use the aerodynamic helmets. That makes sense.

Now look at the way Lotto-Belisol and Orica-GreenEdge tried to replicate the HTC-Columbia sprint train on stage two from Visé to Tournai. This is an example of an idea that is being copied for the sake of it.

The problem is, neither Lotto nor Orica seem to have worked out that there is a crucial difference between their approach and HTC’s. They don’t have Mark Cavendish. What they have done is assume that the lead-out train is the way to win.

Both teams looked well organised on the run-in to Tournai. They had plenty of riders at the front and they gave a very passable performance as an HTC-Columbia tribute act.

Without a Sky train to ride, Cavendish moved himself forward with a series of perfectly-judged and very deliberate moves as if he was playing a game of hopscotch on wheels.

Neither Greipel nor Matt Goss have Cavendish’s sudden turn of speed or agility and they were thoroughly outmanoeuvred in the final couple of hundred metres.

The challenge for both teams is to come up with an approach that actually works, because it is clear that a fast, well-drilled HTC-Columbia-style train is unlikely to put Cavendish on the back foot.

They might get it right if they do the same thing in Rouen on Wednesday, Saint-Quentin on Thursday and Metz on Friday but we could see Cavendish take advantage of their organisation, use his instinct to pick the right wheels to follow and jump them on the line again.

Whether you think of them as High Road, Columbia or HTC, they didn’t invent lead-out trains. Flandria used to lead out Freddy Maertens in the 1970s, Superconfex did it for Jean-Paul Van Poppel in the mid 1980s and Mario Cipollini’s Saeco team probably deserve the credit for taking the art to a new level. They had Gian Matteo Fagnini, a fast finisher in his own right, as Cipo’s ‘last man’ in the way that HTC-Columbia once used Mark Renshaw.

What High Road did was to build a team to support Cavendish unconditionally. They stacked eight riders in his favour and were able to dictate. They were organised, analytical and dedicated,

But they had a crucial advantage. They had the fastest sprinter in the game. The train didn’t make the winner but it did make the sprints simpler, less fraught with uncertainty and helped carve out large margins of victory.

Since joining Team Sky, Cavendish has adapted to his surroundings. He has evolved. He has demonstrated the sort of sporting intelligence that the greatest exponents of their craft have. He recognised that he had to do things differently and he has, in a small way, been innovative. He has answered the question posed to him, which was: “How do I win without eight team-mates to control the final phase?”

In the meantime, Lotto and some of the other teams have fallen for one of the sport’s more obvious pitfalls. They have copied something that worked for someone else because it appeared to be the smartest thing to do.

But Lotto have answered the wrong question. They have asked themselves: “How do we make a lead-out train as good as HTC-Columbia?”

What they should have asked is: “How can we beat the fastest sprinter in the world?”

Perhaps it’s going to take some radical thinking. Maybe Cavendish’s rivals need to go back to the drawing board and approach things from a different angle. Because simply repeating the same method is likely to lead to the same results.

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