The cat is finally out of the bag, with Mark Cavendish agreeing a contract extension at Astana Qazaqstan and deciding to continue racing in 2024.
His main aim is - as expected - to have one final crack at the Tour de France stage win record, which he currently holds jointly with Eddy Merckx on 34. With the form he has displayed at times this year, it’s possible to imagine him winning far more than just another Tour stage next summer.
When Cavendish initially signed for Astana it understandably attracted some puzzlement. Why would a sprinter of his calibre join a team that’s never really been known for its prowess in chaotic sprint stages in races like the Tour? A fair question, but one that Astana dealt with in supporting the 38-year-old since he pulled on their pale blue jersey, although there is more to work on if the record is to be broken.
While the official confirmation only came today, all the signs have been pointing to this moment for weeks as Astana has gone quietly about its business assembling a better setup around the Manxman. A setup that will provide him with the confidence and support he needs for that one final year at the top.
Fast men like Davide Ballerini, Ide Schelling, and Max Kanter have been signed from Soudal Quick-Step, Bora-Hansgrohe and Movistar respectively, in order to bolster a fairly fallow sprint train, but the crowning piece has been the capture of Michael Mørkøv, from Quick-Step too.
The Dane has been the best lead out man in the world in recent years, helping Cavendish to four Tour stage wins in 2021 - his final wins at the race to date - and similarly shepherded Sam Bennett to stage wins and the green jersey in 2020.
This year, Astana's sprint train effectively consisted of Cees Bol - who did well in this role - but more support on the hunt for stage 35 is very welcome indeed. As well as improving the lead out Cavendish will have, it also is a show of faith in the 38-year-old, an encouragement to try one more time.
Arguably, the most pivotal acquisition is that of Cavendish’s former coach Vasilis Anastopoulos. Cycling Weekly reported last week that the Greek ex-pro turned coach was set to join the team and it was confirmed by Astana on Wednesday afternoon that he would indeed reunite with Cavendish next year.
Anastopoulos breathed a new lease of life into the Manxman when they worked together at Quick-Step in 2021 which resulted in the four Tour stage wins as well as the green jersey that summer.
If the pair click yet again in the same way that Cavendish has previously described before then Astana certainly has a hidden weapon up their sleeves.
Gaining an edge on Philipsen
One of Anastopoulos’ first objectives should be helping Astana look to replicate Cavendish’s Giro d’Italia victory, that he landed on the final day of the race this year.
Winning in Rome in the style that he did was trademark Cavendish, the ‘Manx Missile’ at his best, and seemed to provide both him and his new employers with a huge shot of adrenaline and a confidence boost ahead of their bigger goal in July.
Victory on that final day underlined the fact that their joint project was clearly working and was rapidly gaining momentum at the right time.
Getting a similar result in 2024 ahead of the Tour could be crucial in deciding how the race then plays out, particularly if an early season win means Cavendish getting one over on Jasper Philipsen after he snatched the potential record breaking stage win from under the 38-year-old’s nose in Bordeaux.
Philipsen will undoubtedly be the man to beat yet again at La Grande Boucle next year, and if Cavendish can beat him at a race like Schelderprijs early doors, he’ll then have the psychological edge on the 25-year-old before they cross swords on the French boulevards to come.
If a similar situation to Bordeaux does play out and Cavendish proves again that he has the power to beat him, Astana really can’t afford to have the misfortune of a bike issue getting in the way from him crossing the line first again.
Vinokourov and his partners will be fully aware that they can’t allow a similar slipup to occur. That will have almost certainly entered the discussions of recent weeks that have brought us to this point in order to avoid any unwanted repetition.
Ultimately if Astana’s recent work continues then they’ll have done all they can. Eventually it’s down to luck on the day, and you make your own luck as the saying goes. Cavendish knows how to do just that.
With former colleagues around him from his renaissance year and new found allies in Vinokourov, things might well just click this time around.
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