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By signing Cavendish, Omega has taken pressure off Boonen

MILAN (VN) — Omega Pharma-Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere reconfigured the Belgian squad over winter, and it worked. New recruit Mark Cavendish won the overall at the Tour of Qatar, including four stages, earlier this month and Tom Boonen dealt with less pressure ahead of the classics.

“One of the reasons to get Mark [in Omega Pharma] was to take a little bit of pressure off of Tom. It was always ‘Tom, Tom, Tom,'”Lefevere told VeloNews. “He won in Qatar last year, the classics, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But, like in wine, you can’t have a ‘Grand Cru Exceptionnel’ every year. Tom can’t repeat every year what he did last year.”

Boonen, Lefevere’s franchise rider since 2004, returned to his best last year, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) for a third time and Roubaix for a fourth, while also picking up other wins like Ghent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke, and the national road title.

Lefevere kept busy in the backroom at Omega Pharma’s office. Boonen’s wins were big, putting his team clearly on top at home in cycling-mad Belgium. He wanted more, though.

Cavendish had been whispering he was unhappy midway through his first season in a three-year contract with Sky. The team’s focus was clearly on stage racing, which paid off with Brad Wiggins winning Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Tour de France, leaving little room for the “Manx Missile.”

A winner of Milano-Sanremo and the 2011 world road title in Copenhagen, as well as the green jersey and 23 stages of the Tour de France, Cavendish added to his victory tally in Qatar, now standing at 96, not counting team time trials.

Once he was able to negotiate his way out of his Sky contract, Lefevere swooped in and signed the sprint star. The deal seemed perfect for Cavendish — a typical classics team without a classification rider to get in the way in the Grand Tours. It didn’t hurt that Cavendish has a long-running relationship with Specialized founder Mike Sinyard, dating back to his days with HTC-Highroad; Omega Pharma is a Specialized-sponsored team.

Cavendish could not have felt more welcomed than at the start of this season. Boonen suffered several setbacks over the winter, first with intestinal problems, and later with an infection in his arm. He was forced to skip Qatar, where his name has come to symbolize cycling for locals thanks to his four overall wins.

“We have tried to do the right thing for [Boonen], Oman and Paris-Nice, and then we will see for the two important races, Flanders and Roubaix,” Lefevre said.

If Boonen doesn’t pull off another “Grand Cru,” Cavendish will be there to ease the pressure and shoulder the burden.

“That was the goal of the team, to get a sprinter,” Lefevre said. “It’s nice to have Francesco Chicchi, who was winning last year, but with a guy like Mark – he’s worldwide famous, a huge publicity – he likes winning, the team likes it, and off course, he’s important for us for the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.”

After opening his season in Oman, Boonen starts the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne classics this weekend in Belgium. Cavendish just wrapped up the Volta ao Algarve.

“For the team, it’s perfect,” Boonen told VeloNews. “Personally, though, it doesn’t change a thing because I just want to back on track as soon as possible for the classics.”