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Mark Cavendish’s sprint train still looking for the right track

NAPLES, Italy (VN) — Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) took the stage win and the Giro d’Italia’s pink jersey on Saturday, but it nearly all went wrong. In the run-in to Naples, his team was far from being in control and saw doubt once again cast on its lead-out train.

Omega Pharma has lived through some tough times since March. Classics star Tom Boonen was behind and then crashed in the classics. Cavendish and his train flopped on a few occasions. And when the team raced into Schoten in Antwerp’s suburbs last month, hoping to deliver Cavendish to his fourth Scheldeprijs victory, they couldn’t get it done.

“There wasn’t a sprint train today either,” general manager Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews Saturday. “There was a crash, Gert [Steegmans] had technical problems, but Mark saved himself well.”

In the final 2km in Naples, a crash saw the front-end fracture off the peloton, leaving around 15 riders out front, including Cavendish and Steegmans. Orica-GreenEdge still maintained control for Matt Goss and Cannondale sat shotgun for Elia Viviani.

Due to a crash earlier, Steegmans’ derailleur malfunctioned in a crucial moment, dumping his chain to the little ring. Swamped, Cavendish used his speed to sprint around RadioShack-Leopard’s Danilo Hondo and Giacomo Nizzolo. He saved the day, but only just.

“Perfect day? No,” said Lefevere. “But you saw in Naples that the road are so dangerous that at least 30 riders crashed. In the first laps there were a lot of punctures.”

Sports director Brian Holm said that being swamped or out-numbered is part of the game.

“That even happened with HTC — turn the clock back in the first few stages of the Tour de France,” Holm told VeloNews.

“We blew it a few times in the roundabout [on Saturday]. … There’s always big panic in the start, we could’ve just have easily lost.”

In the last week leading to the start of the Giro in Naples, Omega Pharma met several times to sort out its sprint train. They discussed the basics: Iljo Keisse leads Matteo Trentin, Trentin sets up Steegmans, and Cavendish wins off Steegmans’ back. They also talked about the numbers.

“We had a shit load of discussions about,” said Steegmans. “We explained that when [other teams] go with three kilometers with only four guys, don’t worry, they won’t make it. That was what you saw with Orica and Cannondale, they couldn’t make it. You need four guys with one kilometre out!”

The team’s next chance will be in Wednesday’s stage to Matera. Steegmans said the team will try to have more men in the closing kilometers to protect Cavendish to avoid a situation like Naples.

Of course, Lefevere and the top brass can be thankful they are working with the best in the business.

“He’s a mastermind, he has that nose for winning,” Holm added. “Somehow he gets in there. He always finds a good position.”