While Andre Greipel and Luke Durbridge were the stars of January, with Greipel dominating the Tour Down Under sprints and Durbridge claiming a classic road and time trial double at the Australian Championships, two more riders are beginning to emerge as the stars of February.
Although the month has hardly begun, sprint king Mark Cavendish and Australia’s own Leigh Howard have both put up their hands with convincing wins in their respective races.
Cavendish, racing in the heat and the wind at the Tour of Qatar, is on the verge of claiming his second career stage race victory. He claimed his first general classification jersey mid way through last year in the Netherlands at the Ster ZLM, ironically without winning a stage.
Even more ironic was that Cavendish sealed his victory on the race’s dubiously titled ‘queen stage’. Lars Boom dashed away early for the win, but Cavendish scrambled in for second which was enough to secure victory after losing his main rivals – Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Mark Renshaw – on the earlier climb.
Qatar will not offer him the ‘luxury’ of a hill, but if the Manxman can stay out of trouble over the remaining two stages, overall victory will be his.
In the mad and chaotic sprints that have ended stages three and four, Cavendish has reigned supreme. With every team in the race seemingly trying to get their lead out train to the front, the pointy end of each stage has become very congested and very messy.
In contrast, Cavendish has kept himself tidy.
In stage three, with riders and trains dodging and weaving, and elbows being thrown everywhere, it was Cavendish who ejected himself from the maelstrom to take line honours.
It wasn’t an easy sprint – he had to fight every metre of the way – but it was typical Cavendish. Fast and furious and prevailing in the end by half a wheel from a group of riders that included Edvald Boasson Hagen and John Degenkolb.
It was a drag race to the line with little protection from team mates or otherwise, but if it sapped any of Cavendish’s energy, then it didn’t show the following day.
His win in stage four was even more impressive. After surviving a fairly hefty shunt from the riders beside him, he worked his way to the front, paused briefly behind the leading rider, before launching past and sprinting to victory from a long way out.
He is a very powerful little man!
Going into last night’s penultimate stage he sat first overall, just two seconds up on BMC’s Brent Bookwalter who had held the leader’s jersey since stage one.
While the margin is tight, it won’t be overly concerning to Cavendish. In a race that is influenced heavily by time bonuses, the situation favours the fast, and they don’t come any faster than Cav.
Special mentioned must be made of young Vacansoleil rider Barry Markus who will find no shame at all in finishing second to the Manxman on both occasions.
Meanwhile, over on Spanish territory, young Australian track star turned road racer, Leigh Howard, has been putting in some palmares-boosting performances of his own.
Building on his near misses at the recent Tour de San Luis, Howard claimed the second leg of the Mallorca Challenge. Showing superb bike handling skills, the Orica-Greenedge rider smoothly negotiated the twisting run in to the finish to beat recognised sprinters Tyler Farrar and Jose Rojas for the top podium spot.
He backed this up a couple of days later on the fourth leg of the race series, winning the sprint comfortably on a hillier day that saw some of the other fast men drop out of contention. Having said that, the bunch sprint still contained the likes of Rojas and Robbie Hunter, and was by no means an easy group to beat.
Howard is now looking forward to races such as Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Paris-Nice. It goes without saying that Australian cycling fans will be looking forward to watching.
So they are my early nominations for February’s star performers. Have I missed anyone? Do you have another name you would like to nominate?
Let’s forget about the bad things for awhile and talk riders and racing instead!