It was like the Champs-Élysées in 2009 or 2011: Mark Cavendish sitting on the end of a slick, fast and committed lead-out train, delivered to the final 200 metres, then unleashing his sprint and winning.
Okay, so the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard is not the Champs-Élysées. But there were signs at the Dubai Tour, which finished on Saturday with Cavendish claiming two stages and overall victory, that for the first time in a couple of years, and a couple of teams, the sprinter might have the kind of support he needs.
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It was well illustrated in the final 3km of stage four when five Etixx-Quick-Step team-mates sat in front of Cavendish. They hugged the gutter while, on the other side of the road, the BMC pair of Stefan Küng and Manuel Quinziato launched the kind of attack that is heroic if it succeeds, and a little embarrassing if it doesn’t.
The BMC duo drew level with the Etixx train and inched marginally ahead. The Etixx riders didn’t react, didn’t even look at them, except maybe to cast a withering glance at the hapless pair – as Bernhard Eisel would once have done when he was Cavendish’s lieutenant – as their effort fizzled out, leaving Etixx to the serious business of controlling the race.
And control it they did: Julien Vermote, Tony Martin, Lukasz Wisniowski, Fabio Sabatini did their turns to leave Mark Renshaw and Cavendish with only the sprint to worry about.
They had a bit of luck when Kiel Reijnen of UnitedHealthcare let Cavendish’s wheel go. It was a mistake by Reijnen that left the others with too much to do, but of course it wasn’t just luck: that nobody could get around Reijnen owed much to the sheer speed generated by the Etixx train.
The partnership between Cavendish and his lead-out man, Renshaw, recalled their glory years at High Road, between 2008 and 2011, as did the presence of Martin.
Etixx in 2015 isn’t exactly High Road, because there are still areas that need attention, though not to the extent that the team boss, Patrick Lefevere, is likely to be driven to despair, as he was after last year’s Scheldeprijs. There, after watching a feckless attempt to lead out Cavendish, he said of his riders: “I have not seen men with balls.”
At the end of stage one in Dubai, Sabatini, the new Italian recruit, disappeared too quickly, leaving Renshaw exposed. They were fortunate that Sky had come to the front, though Eisel and Andy Fenn – both former team-mates of Cavendish, inadvertently giving him a brilliant lead-out here – had lost their sprinter, Elia Viviani.
The role Sabatini is expected to fulfil – sitting in front of Renshaw – was envisaged for Alessandro Petacchi last year, though that didn’t really work out. Sabatini adjusted as the race went on, and surely has a better chance of making a success of it if only because he’s 29, whereas the once formidable Petacchi was 40.
At the end of that first stage Cavendish still had a lot to do when Renshaw dropped him off around 300 metres from the line. He launched his sprint and held on through sheer strength, whereas five years ago he would have depended more on pure speed.
Cavendish might not have the same acceleration – perhaps inevitable as he approaches his 30th birthday – but the requirements of the lead-out train remain essentially the same: speed, commitment, and confidence in the man sitting at the back (Lefevere might add ‘balls’ to the list.)
A certain arrogance is required, of the kind that was so apparent in Cavendish’s lead-out train at High Road. At the 2009 Tour, with Cavendish en route to six stage wins, the mood was established on stage two. When Milram, working for Gerald Ciolek, tried to muscle in, they were promptly muscled back out. They didn’t bother trying again.
On countless occasions the Garmin duo of Julian Dean and Tyler Farrar were like grit in the slick High Road machine but generally you didn’t mess with the likes of Eisel, George Hincapie or Renshaw, who on one occasion in 2010 head-butted Dean and was thrown off the race.
Then there was Tony Martin, whose versatility saw him occupy virtually every position, even final lead-out man, as on the lumpy run-in to Aubenas at the end of stage 19 of the 2009 Tour. On that occasion he led Cavendish, and the rest of the peloton, for 1.6km.
The new-look Etixx train has the firepower, certainly. And, crucially, as they demonstrated on the final stage in Dubai, when their man was racing for the overall win as well as the stage, they have confidence in Cavendish. They wouldn’t have been so committed if they didn’t.
But there are far bigger tests ahead. Races in which Cavendish’s team-mates – the likes of Martin and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski – will have their own goals, which might test their commitment to the lead-out train. And, of course, races in which the opposition is not Viviani or Andrea Guardini, but Cavendish’s bogeyman, Marcel Kittel.
A footnote to Dubai, though, is that Cavendish triumphed not only in two bunch sprints, but also overall.
That was thanks to his ability to suffer and remain in contention on the steep climb to the finish of stage three: an ability he previously demonstrated at the Ster ZLM Tour in 2012, and one that Kittel does not possess. If Cavendish wants to keep on winning into his 30s, particularly if strength rather than speed becomes his most potent weapon, it is something he could perhaps develop further.