As he prepares for a shot at Olympic gold in the ominium this August, how has Mark Cavendish's track specific training given him the edge at the Tour de France?
It’s something you will have likely read or heard at least once during the opening week of this year’s Tour de France: Mark Cavendish’s track training has helped his sprint speed.
Given that the Dimension Data rider has won twice in the first five stages (or two out of the three sprints, to give his achievements due credit), such a comment appears to ring true.
After all, former British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton called the improvements at the turn of 2016.
“One of the things I spoke to him is that, whatever the result [in the Rio Olympics, in which Cavendish is seeking omnium gold], the work on the programme will give him the sustainable speed in going forward,” he said.
“Look at the last couple of years; it’s the last 20 metres or so [in bunch sprints] that have let him down speedwise.
“We can talk about aero gains made by the others and all the rest [of that stuff], but ultimately he hasn’t had the sustainable speed he used to have. Coming back to the track and working on the boards will mean we see a different Cav out there this year.”
Yet, considering his win on Monday came at the end of a 223.5-kilometre stage, one that admittedly was half ridden like a tame club run but still considerably longer than any of the six omnium discipline distances, it may beg the question as to how the two compliment each other.
“It’s basically the force that’s produced in the training,” explained Cavendish’s former teammate and friend Rob Hayles. “It’s all about your body recruiting the muscles required for sprinting, getting everything working an the quicker speeds.”
Referencing the British team pursuit squad, with whom Cavendish has trained throughout the year, Hayles added: “Their training has plenty of sprint-type events these days; it’s not solely about the long mileage work as it was some years ago.
“They’ll do over-distance efforts, maybe five kilometres instead of four, on under-geared bikes to improve their leg speed.
“There’s also overpaced [faster than the likely speeds over four kilometres], over-geared intervals they do to get them pushing huge gears – Cav would probably use a 110 or 112-inch gear for those, as opposed to a 106 or 108” in competition on the track. Again, that’s about getting the legs moving, dealing with the gear.
Watch: Mark Cavendish win Tour de France 2016 stage one
“He’s also done a lot of motorpacing this season, too. He’s done a lot of that on the road in previous years, but on the track you can do it at higher intensity, and therefore get the rider’s cadence higher because of the logistical difficulties of doing it on roads.
“All this adds up to a good amount of recruitment – not just for the legs, but the back, glutes, arms, shoulders. You become stronger in so many areas.
“He has probably had a more-rounded training experience going into this Tour than anybody else in the peloton here.”
Experience is sometimes overlooked when it comes to sprinting; riding his 10th Tour, Cavendish has plenty of it.
He used a 54×11 on stage one to Utah Beach, a decision no doubt taken by the fast run-in to the finish. Together with his Dimension Data teammates, they rode the final kilometres at race speed in training a couple of days before the Tour started.
Conversely, Etixx-Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere said afterwards that Marcel Kittel probably needed a similar gear, instead of a 53 on the front.
Then on Tuesday, after being beaten by the Manxman in a photo-finish in the uphill sprint to Angers, André Greipel said: “My gear was too big for the steep finish and that might have made me lose.”
Cavendish got it right both times. “When you get an uphill sprint, and you have to change to a 13 or 14 [on the back cassette], that changes the required cadence,” added Hayles. “Track training will give a rider that zip to deal with that.”
Before Cavendish was officially unveiled as a Dimension Data rider in Manchester on January 5, he trained on the velodrome inside British Cycling’s HQ.
For approximately 20 minutes, at seemingly metronomic ease, he recorded 16.2-second laps behind a scooter. (Average speed: just over 55km/h). Even then, not long into his winter workload, he looked notably lean and comfortable with the pace.
Such efforts will have become a mainstay of his training throughout 2016; because of his desire to win an Olympic gold in Rio next month, Cavendish didn’t race on the road for a whole month between mid-February and mid-March, and had three weeks separating his participations in the Tours of Croatia, California and Slovenia.
As a result, he entered the Tour with 36 road racing days in his legs – in effect two stage races down on the 50 prior to the 2014 edition.
All this leads into another reason why Hayles thinks Cavendish has looked so good in the Tour thus far. And no, it’s nothing to do with being fresh.
“To be honest, I think one of the big differences is that he’s happy,” he said. “I know people who have seen him day in, day out in Manchester, and they’ve all said he’s been in really good spirits.
“I think that comes from the team: they’re not putting pressure on him like he’s had at other squads before, they’ve allowed him to train on the track.”