Mark Cavendish, the “sore loser” debate and the 2012 World Championships Q & A

In a summer of unsurpassed British sporting excellence it is a controversial outburst that has filled my inbox with the greatest propensity in recent months. The sheer number of responses to Mark Cavendish’s outburst following the Olympic Road Race and the proximity of the Cycling World Championships has led me to readdress the issue.

For those of you who weren’t aware. Cavendish was critical of a number of other teams stating: “It seems other teams are happy not to win as long as we don’t win…there was seventy guys in our group at the finish, I don’t understand why there’s three guys riding”

A number of people have been critical of Cav suggesting that he was bitter, spoilt and childish in his reaction. So was he and what chance of a repeat at the World Championships?

Firstly, let’s look at the race itself. Initially TeamGB controlled the pace before a number of riders began to break away and attack….

Why didn’t Cavendish join the attack?

Most breakaways fail. Due to aerodynamics, slipstreaming and sharing of workload it is easier to ride in a large group than a smaller one. This means that breakaways are often brought back by the peloton (main group). Furthermore, if Cavendish, or any other favourites, had joined the breakaway the peloton would have increased their pace earlier to reel the break back. This would have led to him wasting energy and wasting the talents of arguably the best team in the field.

So why didn’t they chase the pack harder?

Cavendish is a sprinter, he’s more muscular, and therefore, heavier than most other cyclists, this means that hills in particular drain his energy quickly. This limited Wiggins, Froome, Stannard and Millar to Cavendish’s pace over Box hill. Cavendish lost a lot of weight, limiting his top end speed in order to aid their speed over the hills but he was never going to be as quick as his teammates. However, the limiting factor was not the pace over the hills but the fatigue his teammates would encounter in order to bring him into contention. With just four teammates (as opposed to eight in grand tour’s like the Tour de France) it was a tough ask for them to keep the pace high enough on the flat sections for 250kms to put him in with a chance of winning. They came close (finishing within a minute of the leaders) but they couldn’t quite make the grade on their own.

Exactly! So why did Cavendish expect others to help him?

He didn’t expect other teams to help him per se, but he did expect them to ride at the front of the pack to bring their own riders into medal contention. Teams like Australia and Germany also had sprinters in the bunch that were in the same predicament as GB but they chose not to ride on the front.

So why didn’t they help?

A number of theories have been suggested. Cadel Evans (Australia’s 2011 Tour de France winner) suggested that his team were looking to get three men in the breakaway in order to get a leg up on the British team. However, only one man reached the leading pack, leaving their gameplan in flux. They gambled on Jack Bauer (not that one) and Stuart O’Grady out-competing the rest of the field. With respect this was always an unlikely scenario. For Germany the situation is even more bizarre. With no riders up the road it seems somewhat unforgiveable that they chose not to ride on the front for a long period. However, it is worth remembering that Team GB were within a minute of the breakaway at the finish. Perhaps Germany anticipated a tired GB squad bringing the break back in time for their fresher riders to form a more effective lead out train at the finish giving Andre Greipel the upper hand in a sprint against Cavendish.

How did they win the world Championships in 2011 then?

Crucially they had a biggest team and the Danish course was flat. They dominated the race from start to finish and surprised their competitors. However, in London the rest of the field knew the British tactics and altered their gameplans as a result.

So what are Cavendish’s chances at this year’s World Championships?

In short, slim. It’s lumpy but it does have a flat finish so if Cavendish is in the pack with 10k to go he has a shot. This however, is very unlikely and is far more likely to favour classics riders like Tom Boonen, Phillip Gibert while the Spanish team is jam packed with talent including the controversial Alberto Contador who recently proved he’s regained his form after beating two countrymen and Chris Froome to secure the Vuelta Espana title. For British interest it might be time to look to an unlikely source. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Stannard are probably the team’s stongest climbers but have all had long tiring seasons and have showed real signs of fatigue in recent weeks. The least well known member of the team Jonathon Tiernan-Locke looks the most in form and is not well known enough to stimulate a concerted response from the peloton. If he can get away, he could spring a surprise, but Britain’s prospects are limited in the Netherlands. The ace in the pack though is Dave Brailsford, he surprised the field last time round, who’s to say he won’t do it again.


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