“I’ve never been so enthusiastic at the start of a new season. It feels like I’m starting a new career.” As far as soundbites go, they don’t get much better than that. And as far as sprint wins go, they don’t get much more emphatic than Mark Cavendish’s three successive scalps in Qatar.
The former world champion may have missed out on an Olympic road race gold medal on home soil in London 2012, but his hat-trick of wins in the Qatari desert have thrust him into the leader’s golden jersey of the Middle East’s premier stage race with just one day remaining.
Cavendish, who seemed to fall out of love with bike racing last year while being criminally misused by Team Sky, is now being swept back off his feet like a smitten teenager.
Having opened up his account for Omega Pharma-Quick Step in January’s Tour of San Luis in Argentina, Cavendish now has four wins to his name this season – and a smile on his face that will take some removing.
“I love this team. I was a bit nervous about changing teams but that passed immediately,” Cavendish told Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport at the start of his winning run in Qatar.
“Peta, my partner, said: ‘It’s great to hear that you’re enjoying cycling again. For a year it’d had become just a job. There was so much pressure. Now you just need to get on your bike to start enjoying yourself.'”
Enjoying himself is clearly high on Cavendish’s priority list right now. It was hard to have fun when you’re stuffing your world champion’s rainbow jersey with bidons for Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome during the last week of the Tour de France, where Team Sky’s focus was on the top prize and not the points jersey.
“It was the most difficult Tour of my career. I was wearing the rainbow jersey and had the form of my life but I won my least number of stages. It was frustrating,” he said.
Cavendish joined the British team after the disbanding of HTC under the proviso that Sky would be fighting a battle on two fronts – for both yellow and green.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” he told Gazzetta. “But when we got there, I realised things were different. If things had been made clear before I signed, I’d probably have gone to a different team.”
The 27-year-old is revelling being once again the number-one focus of a World Tour team. He’s aware that his Belgian outfit were one of the most successful teams of 2012 and that their reputation in the spring classics – what with the likes of Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra – is second to none.
But their only stage win in a grand tour last year came in the Vuelta with Dario Cataldo, who has since crossed paths with Cavendish and joined Team Sky, and Cavendish will be bolstered by the fact that he’ll be the team’s trump card for the season’s major stage races – especially given the lack of a bona fide GC contender at OPQS.
“There’s a great atmosphere in the team. It’s difficult not to be happy when you’re surrounded by Belgians: they’re always smiling and happy. This group also won a lot in 2012, from the cobbles to the team time trial world title. They missed out on stages in the grand tours but together we can be the most dominant group in the world.”
So far, so good for Cavendish. Although it has to be said that his first two wins in Qatar seemed to stem more from his own supreme speed than any ostensible lead-out train. Either Matteo Trentin or Terpstra had been present going into the final kilometres, but when it came to the crunch time, it was Cavendish who had to power clear from isolation to the front of the pack.
Compare this to the three Tour Down Under scalps so bullishly posted by the Manxman’s old team-mate and sprint rival Andre Greipel. Once again in Australia, the German benefitted from a slick, well-oiled and professional Lotto-Belisol team – the closest thing in the current peloton resembling the HTC train of old. It also helped that Greipel was the fastest man on two wheels in Adelaide by a country mile.
It’s hard to say who’s in a better position at this early point of the season. Like Cavendish, Greipel has shed a lot of weight in the off-season – something which may benefit his chances in the long attritional battle that is the quest for the Tour’s maillot vert.
But while the Gorilla’s team unit have been together for a few seasons and are at the height of their powers, there is certainly time for OPQS to gel ahead of the major tours this summer. Indeed, Thursday’s stage five win in Qatar saw OPQS boss the peloton completely, chasing down a break of three riders entering the final 20km before providing Cav with a three-strong burly escort led by Terpstra going into the home straight.
Still, Cavendish winning even in relative isolation is good enough for now; not only has it put the smile back on his face, it’s also put him in a near unassailable position to take the overall win in Qatar – something achieved four times in the past by his current team-mate Boonen.
So while Cavendish may not be as individually strong as he was last year – he readily admits to be lighter and less powerful than at the same point last season – “that’s ok because I’m still winning bike races and I’m really happy with that”.
In short, not only does he still have that killer jump, he’s also psychologically flying high. Plus the team unit is progressing fast.
After the travails of last season – which came to a head when he missed out on an Olympic gold medal in the shadow of Buckingham Palace – the symbolism of Cavendish wearing gold at this point in the current campaign will not go unnoticed by the peloton’s quickest man.
Cycling’s other top sprinters – particularly those with their eyes on the Tour’s green jersey – will be very much aware that there’s only one thing worse than Mark Cavendish winning and that’s a smiling Mark Cavendish winning.
Because when Cav smiles, it’s because he knows there’s so much more to come.