Mark Cavendish will enter Sunday's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne as defending champion in what is set to be his first clash of the year with German sprinter Andre Greipel.
Cavendish has enjoyed his most successful pro season start collecting six victories with new team Omega Pharma-Quick Step to Greipel's four with Lotto Belisol. The duo, along with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), currently top the 2013 victory ranking.
Greipel's season success has come from an organised lead-out, plus his burst of speed in the final 200m is impressive. The former world champion Cavendish has been well protected by teammates throughout races but in contrast has adopted a freestyle approach in finishes.
It begs the question how the two will compare this weekend assuming the 198km semi-Classic comes down to a bunch sprint, which it may not with possible snow and a maximum temperature of 5 °C forecast.
"I've watched a few of the sprints that Cavendish has won this year already and you can see the train sort of melts down in the final couple kilometres," Lotto Belisol pilot Greg Henderson said. "That's where our Lotto train is actually the strongest is in the final 2K so the odds stack in Greipel's favour in that circumstance.
"The lead-out eliminates variables. It doesn't guarantee Greipel a win, especially if say Cavendish doesn't have a lead-out, and has planted himself on Greipel's wheel for however many kilometres, but it makes sure he can deliver his best sprint.
"Cavendish comes from the track, he's very crafty in the bunch and can find his way to the front on his own if he has to. But if he has to start three bike lengths behind Greipel, and if he doesn't have a lead-out or someone to help him get to Greipel's wheel then it's going to cost him energy to get there, and then maybe he doesn't have the last little bit of energy it takes to get past."
The duo met at the same race last year where Greipel was boxed in within the final 300m and finished 10th. Lotto-Belisol this season also has a winning option in Jurgen Roelandts should a mass sprint not eventuate.
"Last year we had a really good opportunity to win the race," Henderson said. "Greipel had Cavendish's wheel, it was actually a role reversal, and then hesitated a little too long so never got to unleash his sprint."
Tom Boonen is unsure of his form, having suffered health setbacks over the pre-season, and will decide after Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad if he will start Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne with Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
Cavendish would not entertain how his winning approach to the season thus far may compare to Greipel's this weekend.
"Between me and him, we're the two best in the world, I believe, in the sprint," Cavendish said.
"You shouldn't go into a bike race to try and beat someone else, you should go in to a bike race to try and win. My goal is always to cross the line first regardless of who is there."
Asked if his adaptability in a fast finish would be an advantage going forward the 27 year old said: "No, I don't believe so. I believe when we get a group together we're going to be the strongest team there for the sprint.
"The most dangerous thing is there are teams that don't have a strong lead-out but think you need one. They look at how HTC was, they look at how Lotto is and they believe you need a lead-out. You get them trying to organise themselves, you've got two of them on one side of the peloton, two on the other and it causes carnage."
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