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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: From Tom Simpson to Mark Cavendish

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Sep. 27, 2011

Operation Rainbow Jersey

That goal, dubbed Operation Rainbow Jersey, targeted the 2011 worlds in Denmark because of the Copenhagen circuit’s lack of climbs and a likely sprint finish that would suit Mark Cavendish — who, at 23, was fresh off a second pro season that saw him win 21 times, including four Tour de France stages.

To become world champion with the British national team, Cavendish would need to get the same excellent support he received all yearlong at Team Highroad: teammates who could keep a race together for hour after hour, and lead-out men who could keep the pace high in the closing kilometers and prepare him for the final kick to the line.

For the past five years at HTC, Cavendish has developed his sprinting skills with Germany’s all-time winningest rider Erik Zabel; he’s received superb tactical advice from sports directors Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm, Allan Peiper and Valerio Piva; and team manager Bob Stapleton has provided a calm, doping-free environment that has given Cavendish the confidence he needed to succeed.

For the Denmark worlds, Cavendish could marry this experience with the highest quality technical support that’s part of British Cycling’s national team program. Cavendish began his under-23 career as part of the national team, notably winning the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds with Rob Hayles. On the road, he was groomed by personal coach Ellingworth and confidant Max Sciandri.

British Cycling has expanded the size and quality of its back up over the past decade with funding from the National Lottery and government coffers, while Sky’s sponsorship has helped raise Brailsford’s sights even higher. The once impoverished federation now has a team of technicians that even includes a sports psychologist and a nutritionist.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

The worlds are contested by national teams, but the elite men’s gold medals won by Mark Cavendish (RR) and Tony Martin (TT) are included here as bonus wins for their HTC-Highroad squad — which continues to head the ProTeam standings only a month before it being disbands at season’s end.

1. HTC-Highroad 46 (14 riders)
2. Liquigas-Cannondale 29 (six riders)
3. Omega Pharma-Lotto 28 (five riders)
4. Team RadioShack 27 (12 riders)
5. Team Sky 26 (10 riders)
6. Rabobank 24 (nine riders)
7. Garmin-Cervélo 23 (11 riders)
8. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 21 (nine riders)
10. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 19 (seven riders)
12. Saxo Bank-SunGard 17 (six riders)
13. Katusha 15 (three riders)
14. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
15. BMC Racing 10 (four riders)
16. Astana 7 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 6 (four riders)
18. AG2R-La Mondiale 5 (three riders)

(Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including world RR and TT championships and national RR championships of major countries, through September 25)

One result of the program has been wind-tunnel technology that help produce the road skinsuit and the black aero road helmet (partly covered by a clear plastic sheath) that allowed Cavendish to save energy through Sunday’s title race and then gave him a slight aero advantage in the final sprint over runners-up Matt Goss and André Greipel (his current and former HTC teammates).

Before Operation Rainbow Jersey could be fulfilled though, Britain’s top pros had to become more successful so they could be ranked among the top 10 countries in the world. That was the key to getting a full complement of eight riders on the start line in Denmark. The men earning those necessary UCI WorldTour points were six Team Sky riders (Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome, Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh, Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas) along with Garmin-Cervélo’s David Millar and HTC-Highroad’s Cavendish.

Sky’s younger riders, Swift and Kennaugh, weren’t selected for Copenhagen as Brailsford preferred their more experienced teammates, Jeremy Hunt and Ian Stannard. And just as Simpson’s colleagues in 1965 pledged to support a unique leader 100 percent, so Wiggins, Millar and company promised to do the same for Cavendish last Sunday. And they fulfilled that mission impeccably, maintaining positions at or near the head of the peloton for the whole 260km.

Cavendish was worried about the finishing power of world No. 1 Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and needed his teammates to ride a hard tempo, especially in the finale, to prevent him from making one of his uphill charges. Back in 1965, Simpson told teammate Hoban about his concern over the Italian in the breakaway, a two-time Giro winner.

Hoban recalled: “Tom came alongside me and admitted, ‘I’m worried about Balmamion.’ This was because the Italian … had been soft-pedaling the whole time. Then Tom added, ‘If you feel like falling off, Barry, fall off in front of Balmamion.’ I didn’t fall off but understood his meaning, which was to make things difficult for the Italian.”

Neither Balmamion back then, nor Gilbert this past Sunday proved to be a problem. In Copenhagen, Froome and Cummings did most of the pacing for Great Britain in the first half of the race, respectively dropping out on the 15th and 16th laps of the 17-lap race. Hunt and Millar sat up on the final lap; Wiggins did nearly 10km at the front to close down the final-lap breaks; and Stannard and Thomas were the last GB riders to usher Cavendish into the final straightaway before the Manx rider did his magic in the uphill sprint.

That final 14km lap, with its plethora of twists and turns and short ups and downs, was raced in 16 minutes 18 seconds — a phenomenal average speed of 51.533 kph. No wonder none of the eventual attacks and breaks could stick!

Cavendish was supremely confident in Denmark. He visited the circuit at Rudersdal, 20km north of Copenhagen, a year ago to scout the course and examine the varying grades of the finishing hill. He planned his season to peak at the Tour de France (where he won his first green jersey and brought his total of stage wins to 20 in four years) and the world championships. He proved two years ago that he had the stamina, power and speed to win a long classic at Milan-San Remo, and he showed on stage 5 of this year’s Tour into Cap Fréhel that he could beat the best in an uphill sprint similar to Copenhagen’s.

Cavendish on Sunday was quick to praise all his colleagues, and he was genuinely stunned that he’d achieved what no other Brit had achieved since Tom Simpson raced a perfect race at San Sebastian 46 years ago. Perhaps the words of British Cycling’s current president Brian Cookson best captured the moment: “I’m sure that [this] success will lead to many, many more youngsters taking up our sport … as this fantastic golden era [for British cycling] continues. This has been a great day in a great week that all of us will remember for the rest of our lives.”

Indeed, last Sunday saw another “where were you when” moment for cyclists in the United Kingdom. And hopefully this golden era is here to stay.

Editor’s note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but he will be writing for this website as a guest columnist.

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