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New-look Cannondale hopes to build on TDU momentum

In the mix — that’s where Cannondale is, and hopes to be, this season.

Three top 10s in the opening three stages at the Santos Tour Down Under, including Michael Woods’ blazing third-place ride over the Corkscrew climb, is energizing the new-look Cannondale squad.

It’s still early days, but just having the finish line within view is good news for the U.S-registered team that underwent a radical makeover for this season.

“We changed a lot from last year, and this is the first race with the new concept,” Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi said. “We want to do better than last year, so for the confidence of the group, we must perform. We started well, and we will continue this way, looking for our opportunities.”

With 11 new riders for 2016, Cannondale is oozing with renewed energy following a tough merger season between Cannondale and Garmin – Sharp that resulted in only 11 wins all year.

A trio of top-10 finishes at the Santos Tour Down under with three WorldTour rookies — second in stage 1 with Dutch sprinter Wouter Wippert, sixth in stage 2 with promising talent Patrick Bevin, and third in stage 3 with Woods — is setting the new vibe at Cannondale.

“It was nice to be up there in the finish with a quality field. We gave it a good nudge,” said Bevin, who many believe could develop into a GC rider. “It’s tough to step up to the WorldTour, but it’s been great to dive straight into the race. The confidence will build over the season.”

Among all the major teams, Cannondale underwent the most changes coming into 2016, with 11 new faces coming on board. Gone are such franchise riders as Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin.

To fill that gap at the top, the team tapped experienced hands, such as Rigoberto Urán (Sky), twice second at the Giro d’Italia, Pierre Rolland (Europcar), a winner at l’Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France, and Matti Breschel (Tinkoff), a solid classics rider. Cannondale also made a big bet on youth, and along with Wippert and Bevin, they signed Lawson Craddock, Ryan Mullen, Toms Skujins, and Woods, a 29-year-old former runner.

They also signed 29-year-old Simon Clarke, who wore the pink jersey in last year’s Giro with Orica – GreenEdge, to help shepherd along its young crew of riders.

“My main role is road captain,” Clarke said. “We have the youngest team in the peloton, and we have some young guys who are really keen, but they want to listen. We’ve got a young and brand new group, so the goal is to gel together and try to create that family group like I had at Orica.”

In contrast to last year, when its only major win came with Davide Formolo’s stage triumph at the Giro, Cannondale hopes to be competitive across the entire WorldTour calendar. Urán will carry team colors at the Giro, while a healthy Andrew Talansky and Rolland will lead at the Tour. Riders like Breschel, Clarke, Alex Howes, Ramunas Navardauskas, and Dylan Van Baarle will have their chances in the one-day classics. Others will have freedom to chase stages and GC during the one-week races on both sides of the Atlantic.

Last year, Cannondale ranked 16th out of 18 WorldTour teams, and despite some close calls, including two second-places at the Tour de France, the team struggled to find its step. The key in 2016 is to be present and make opportunities for victory.

“It’s important to ride together, to be at the front at the right moment, and show that all the group is working together,” Guidi said. “It was a merger last year between two teams with difficult cultures. This year, we start with a real culture, and we bring some quality riders. It was not easy for us last year, but let’s look to the future and not look backward.”

It’s worked like a charm so far in Australia. Wippert, a Dutch sprinter who raced last year with Drapac, will see plenty of chances this year in the mass gallops. He was second behind Orica’s Caleb Ewan on Tuesday. Bevin survived a crash-marred finale Wednesday to punch into sixth, and Woods was impressive beyond words Thursday, leading over the top of the Corkscrew climb with Sky’s Sergio Henao ahead of a pack of experienced, world-class climbers.

“I came in as a bit of an unknown, but [the team] saw me coming into this, don’t put barriers on yourself,” Woods said. “The surge of adrenaline, knowing that I was at the front, and Phil Liggett doing commentary, hearing the chopper on top, and everyone screaming my name. I watch that on TV and fantasize about that, and now it’s happening. It’s crazy.”

If Cannondale has its way, the craziness has just begun.