Making the grade: How the sprinters stack up


Midway through the 2012 season, Mark Cavendish is still the king of kick, but he’s seeing unprecedented challenges from all sides.

Cavendish’s seven wins on the year are all quality, more than worthy of his world champion’s jersey he so proudly wears, but it’s been a sometimes-bumpy road in his transition to Team Sky.

This season has seen him stutter more than a few times, including an abysmal Milan-San Remo and his gutsy, yet uneven ride through the Giro d’Italia, but as always, the Merry Manxster comes through when it really counts.

“This Giro will help me prepare for the most important goals of the season,” Cavendish said at the end of the Giro last week, referring to the Tour de France and the Olympic Games. “I am still not at peak form. The chance to ride for the gold medal in my home country is really what’s motivating me this season.”

Cavendish, 26, has more than lived up to the rainbow jersey so far this season, with seven quality wins on the year in what’s been a very interesting season amongst the fast-twitch sprinters.

“Cannonball” proved there’s no rainbow jersey curse with two victories in Qatar to open the season before dashing to a semi-classic win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and another at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Three more wins came in a rough-and-tumble Giro d’Italia that saw Cavendish ride with pride all the way to Milan when many of the other sprinters took an early exit. He rode his guts out to make it through the demanding final week, losing the points jersey bitterly by just one point to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).

When ex-pro Mario Cipollini threw barbs his way, accusing him of being less-than-professional, Cavendish just laughed in disbelief. There’s no doubt, especially in his mind, who is the fastest man in the bunch.

Not all is perfect in Cav’s world, however. Beyond KBK, his classics season was disappointing, including an implosion at Milan-San Remo that he characterized as the “worst day on the bike” of his career.

The Sky train is still a work in progress and Cavendish proved he’s beatable at the Giro when he doesn’t receive a clean delivery to the line.

Even worse, there is still no clear leadout man for Cavendish going into the Tour. The rider who seems best suited for that job – Geraint Thomas – is skipping the Tour to prepare for the Olympic track events. How successfully others, such as Edvald Boasson Hagen or Chris Sutton, can slot into that role largely untested remains to be seen.

Cavendish shrugged off his loss to Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) in stage 18 in the Giro due to “laziness,” but that was the first time all season Cavendish was beaten straight up to the line.

Sensing an opening, other teams threw down against Cavendish at the Giro, namely Orica-GreenEdge and Saxo Bank, but with only mixed results.

When Cavendish was in the sprint, he won three times. He crashed two other times, took one corner too hot when Roberto Ferrari (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) took a win at Montecetini, and was handed a dose of his own medicine when the upstart Guardini came bursting past his right shoulder in Vedelago. Cavendish could only pound his fist in disbelief.

More than anything at the Giro, Cavendish proved he can still win even when things go slightly off the rails, something that will be vital during the Tour, when Sky will line up with a strong GC team to support Bradley Wiggins’ run for the yellow jersey.