Thursday, 11 July 2013

Is Cavendish Showing Signs Of Slowing Down?

Things haven't gone well for the Manx sprinter so far in the Tour de France this year but much of that is to do with positioning, an inexperienced lead-out train and an early injury. Today though his lead-out train hit their rhythm and he headed to the finish line in a straight up sprint against Marcel Kittel - and lost. So, Is Mark Cavendish slowing down?...

He's 28 and in years past sprinters began to turn their attention to other things at this point in their career but in more recent history Cipollini, Petacchi and Oscar Freire have shown that sprinters can remain competitive well into their 30's.  What isn't in doubt is that Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world - he's rapidly climbing up the leader board for all-time stage wins in the Tour de France and his palmares speaks for itself but after a tough year at Sky last year (I say tough - but three stage wins in the Tour de France is an incredible achievement in it's own right) Cavendish would surely have been hoping for better this year, once again finding himself with a dedicated lead-out. Looking at the results though, things do seem to be on a slight decline, at least where the Tour de France is concerned:

2008: 4 (High Road)
2009: 6 (Colombia HR)
2010: 5 (HTC Colombia)
2011: 5 (HTC High Road)
2012: 3 (Sky)
2013: 1 so far (Omega Pharma Quickstep)
So what's going wrong? Well it's inevitable that with age comes a decline in body conditioning - especially in sports where bursts of speed are essential - when was the last time a 40 year old won the Olympic 100 metre sprint? But at 28 Cavendish still has a fair few fast years ahead of him - what Cavendish doesn't have a hand in is the competition: Andre Greipel is peaking and of course there has been the arrival of Marcel Kittel on the scene, widely expected to be the 'next' Mark Cavendish - as even Cavendish himself says:

Before Greipel found his own lead-out train and Kittel and Sagan arrived Cavendish wasn't always racing against such top quality sprinters - an ageing Petacchi and Tyler Farrar (need I say anymore) rarely challenged Cavendish in a straight up sprint and often he made an easy meal of them. Things have definitely changed in recent years and of course this will effect the winning ratio of Cavendish though he's still well ahead of the rest at the moment.

Perhaps motivation plays a big part? Currently Cavendish is paid (a lot!) to sprint - teams pay above the odds to have Cavendish sprinting because it guarantees at least one stage win in the Tour and plenty of other victories throughout the year but Cav himself has said sometime he struggles with motivation in the smaller races. He's also expressed an interest in the classics and monuments and when sprinters begin to lose their top-end sprint they often head in this direction (see Tom Boonen) and we know when Cavendish slims out and really has focus he can get over some pretty tough climbs in the main bunch. Personally I'd love to see Cavendish take this direction - we have seen him pick up sprint victories practically on repeat and he has pretty much achieved every goal possible for a sprinter, in fact he'd done that by the age of 26 and this in itself can play a role in motivation.

On the flipside though Cavendish does still seem hungry - he's got Eddy Merckx win record in his sights and it's clear in post-race interviews - whether he's clearly delighted or throwing a complete strop - that he most certainly does still have the desire to win.

The fact remains that Cavendish isn't going to have his top-end sprint forever and there are some pretty big new kids on the block. His lead-out train at OPQS may well have not settled into full swing but time and flat stages are fast running out in this Tour and I'm sure he will be disappointed not to have tallied up the stage win this year - its the least he's won since 2008 and it's likely to stay that way. So, should he become a classics man?

Well - not just yet. It's still only speculation but I'd put £100 on Mark Renshaw joining OPQS next year. His contract is up a Belkin and he will have been disappointed not to have made the Tour team this year. He will be guaranteed to make it next year at OPQS and his partnership with Cavendish made for a winning combination - since they parted in 2011 the Cavendish win-rate has slumped and it's clear Renshaw hasn't made it as a sprinter in his own right. Perhaps Bernie Eisel could join them and winning ways could resume in 2014. One things for sure, it's way to early to write Cavendish off as a sprinter - the Manx missile is still the fastest man on Earth - today was just an 'off' day and I'm sure we can excuse him that...

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