The sight of HTC-Highroad’s lead-out train delivering the Manx Missile to probable victory has been one of the finest sights in sport.
Eight men, sacrificing their individual ambitions for one objective, one rider.
To the untrained eye a sprint stage at the Tour de France is at best mundane ahead of the finale, at worst plain boring and a procession for Cavendish. But to the cycling insider it’s the ultimate delivery of team work, as Great Britain showed at the World Championships in propelling Cavendish to the line.
But will Cavendish enjoy the same luxury at Team Sky? After all, when the team was formed in 2009, Dave Brailsford set the ambitious target of producing a British Tour de France winner within five years.
Now, in signing Cavendish, Brailsford faces the prospect of balancing both the team’s yellow and green jersey ambitions.
Team Sky have come of age in 2011 and lie second behind Omega Pharma-Lotto – powered almost solely by Philippe Gilbert’s exploits – in the UCI’s team rankings, with Bradley Wiggins’ Criterium du Dauphine triumph, Edvald Boasson Hagen’s two Tour de France stage victories and Chris Froome and Wiggins’ podium finishes at the Vuelta a Espana the standout performances.
The team have contested almost every race entered but, significantly, also emerged as general classification contenders in the three-week Grand Tours after a limp debut season. And the 2012 Tour de France route, reportedly linked on Monday, looks set to favour both Froome and Wiggins, who are not natural climbers but who will thrive on the two individual time trials.
And so while Sky can joust with the top teams in the general classification, sprinting, a closed shop under Cavendish’s dominance at HTC-Highroad, is open to new challengers. André Greipel and Tyler Farrar will continue to feature, but its the emergence of a new bank of sprinters that will most likely provide the biggest threat. Marcel Kittel has claimed 15 victories in his debut season, with another neo-pro, Andrea Guardini, registering 11 wins, while Peter Sagan is a real threat on lumpy sprint stages.
Sky’s management team will need to select nine riders for the Tour de France who are capable of fighting on two fronts. It’s not an impossible task, however, and Team Telekom won both the yellow and green jerseys in 1996 with Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, before achieving the same feat 12 months later through Jan Ullrich and Zabel, who, incidentally, has mentored Cavendish throughout his time at HTC-Highroad.
Sky possess two of the world’s best all-rounders in Geraint Thomas – Cavendish’s World Championship lead-out man – and Boasson Hagen, with engines to provide the firepower in the finale on sprint stages. Securing the signature of Danny Pate was also significant, with the American playing a key role in chasing down breakaways for Cavendish in this year’s Tour.
Thomas and Boasson Hagen also possess the qualities to offer support in the mountains. Indeed, Boasson Hagen produced an epic turn on the front to blow apart the peloton on stage six of the Dauphine, while Thomas became the virtual yellow jersey on the Col du Tourmalet while in a breakaway on stage 12 of the Tour de France. An important side note, however – Thomas will likely miss the 2012 Tour to focus on the team pursuit at the Olympic Games.
“I think we can accommodate Brad and Cav in our Tour de France team as a lot of our riders can do a mixture of jobs,” wrote Thomas in his BBC blog. “For instance, this year’s Tour line-up included myself and Edvard Boasson Hagen. We can lead out Cav at the finish and we can also climb to help Brad.
“Christian Knees and Juan Antonio Flecha can ride all day on the flat or climbs, too, so I don’t think we need to take too many out-and-out climbers. As long as Brad is protected until the final climb, there is not a lot we can do after that.”
But Wiggins and Froome will also need more specialist support in the mountains, although there is the possibility of one sacrificing his ambitions to play super-domestique to the other. At the tail end of the peloton, Bernhard Eisel, who also signed for Team Sky on Tuesday, will chaperone Cavendish to ensure he finishes within the time cut.
A frenetic first week of this year’s Tour was littered with crashes and Wiggins fell victim on stage seven, abandoning with a broken collarbone. Now, such stages will see Sky at the front, chasing down breaks to setup Cavendish for the finish while also keeping the protected GC rider out of trouble. Riding for two objectives can have its benefits.
“It generates so much discussion, can we win the green, can we win yellow? I don’t think it is impossible. We performed across the board this year and having Cavendish will strengthen us,” Brailsford told the Guardian.
“What is important is that every rider understands what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to try to do it. They will have to understand their roles and responsibilities but that’s down to good planning and preparation.”
Brailsford has masterminded the current renaissance in British cycling and planning and preparation are hallmarks of his regime – but the signing of Cavendish marks the start of the 47-year-old’s toughest job to date.
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