In just one month, the noises emanating from Astana-Qazaqstan have changed radically.
Upon announcing the arrival of Mark Cavendish, the first time the WorldTour team have had one of the peloton’s fast men on their roster, their general manager Alexander Vinokourov tempered the excitement with the admission that “the arrival of a top sprinter is kind of a challenge for us”.
It was a justified statement, for even with the acquisition of fellow sprinter Cees Bol to bolster Cavendish’s leadout, the Kazakh team have no history of being competitive in sprints.
Yet two lots of winter training camps and six days racing in Oman have lifted expectations in a short space of time, even though Cavendish was unable to finish off the work of his teammates on the opening stage of the race.
“The first stage was the first time trying a leadout for Mark, and the first time for a squad that is normally aways trying for the GC,” said Stefano Zanini, the team’s sports director in the Middle East. “It was our first time with a really great sprinter and it was a good effort from the squad. Very, very good.”
Coming into the final 500 metres, Cavendish was positioned well behind two of his teammates but was crowded out as the finish line approached, eventually sitting up as he rolled home in 21st place.
“If we can have the right men in the leadout like we did in the first stage then for sure,” Zanini said when asked if the team can challenge other sprint trains like Soudal-QuickStep and Bora-Hansgrohe. “We are a multi-diverse team, and the important thing is to work on the sprints without stress, and to try, try, try.
“The sprinter, in this case Cavendish, has to have faith in the squad and this is important.”
Vinokourov admitted once again that "for us it's a big challenge" when speaking to Cycling Weekly and TuttoBici after the fifth and final stage of the Tour of Oman, but offered an optimistic assessment.
"Mark has entered well in the squad," he said. "He immediately found his place and we are happy about that. Now we have to find the right setting for his leadout, with [Cees] Bol, [Yevgeniy] Fedorov and [Martin] Laas. We know it is not easy, but we are working to do it well."
Those referenced teammates share Zanini’s impressions. Manuele Boaro, at 35 two years Cavendish’s junior, described the transition from being a climbing and GC team into a sprinting outfit as “simple”, disregarding the perceived thought that adapting to a new way of racing will be a mammoth task.
“It’s not hard to change,” he stated. “We know what we have to do: on a climb, I have to pull going uphill; on the flat, I have to pull in a good position on the flat. It’s like what we already do with [Alexey] Lutsenko [in the climbs]. It’s simple, but it’s important to have the lead [at the front of the peloton].
“We speak before every race and everybody knows what they have to do. We are professionals, and we know that when you have a rider like Cavendish, it makes it easier to have a sprint explained to you
“‘Ok, you are in the leadout’ or ‘ok, you are the last man’. Cavendish is a good teammate and he has explained something new to us that we haven’t done before.
“When you do something new, it’s important you learn. The first day we tried and didn’t win, but sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
“We all want to try the best for the team and Cav because we respect him. I also think it’s good that sometimes you change something because it gives you different and new motivation.”
Cavendish made it clear before the Tour of Oman that he was using the six days to race himself into fitness rather than winning. He is next scheduled to race at the UAE Tour before returning to Europe.
Team manager Vinokourov insisted that “we need to concentrate on the races now and we are not thinking in the Tour de France right now”, but the former Olympic road race champion did admit that the team will abandon their usual Tour strategy in the summer of targeting a high GC result.
“For GC, we now don’t have the riders,” he said, alluding to the space vacated by the recent exit of the Colombian Miguel Ángel López. “Ok, we could get a top-10 with Lutsenko, but it’s better to win two or three stages, no? I think we will be chasing the stages.
“Last year [for the team with five wins] was not very good, but now I think we will improve and we have new motivation with Mark, and for the riders that’s important. I hope we can be better.”
Sports director Zanini, meanwhile, added that the team will become more familiar with Cavendish as time passes.
“It would have been ideal to train the leadout a little but in the training camps, but Cavendish arrived at the last minute,” he said. “Then the races started so it’s not been possible to train, but in the future it will be possible to work on it in training.
“But we have started well. We have only had one sprinting stage to practise, but we are creating a good feeling, and we will continue to do so in the next races. Mark is a great champion, he is super happy, and our squad will give their maximum.”’
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