Last year’s Tour of Britain, won by the young Dutchman Dylan van Baarle, was decided on two days of unbridled racing through the Chilterns and South Downs that went completely counter to the usual structured – critics would say predictable – fare seen in professional road events.
That vindicated the organisers’ insistence on a predominance of hilly stages contested by small teams, which make it hard for any one squad to maintain a stranglehold on proceedings.
The format has done nothing to deter the sprint specialists who will turn up at this year’s Tour in numbers, although only three of the eight days of racing are tailored for bunch finishes. Topping the bill are Mark Cavendish and the German André Greipel, who won four stages of this year’s Tour de France, but they face a wealth of competition from the likes of Ben Swift and Elia Viviani of Team Sky, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gerald Ciolek and Tyler Farrar of MTN-Qhubeka, not to mention Cavendish’s own team-mate, the Colombian newcomer Fernando Gaviria. From the British domestic teams Owain Doull (Wiggins), Ed Clancy (JLT-Condor) and Chris Opie (ONE Pro) should also be in the mix.
Cavendish’s record in his home Tour is a peerless one, with 10 stage wins since 2007, but in 2014 he came to the race in search of form after several weeks off following his opening-stage crash in the Tour de France and was unable to match Marcel Kittel. This year he faces a different kind of pressure, with his team for 2016 yet to be decided. His contract with the Etixx-Quickstep team is up for renewal and it is unclear whether he will continue with the Belgian squad.
An announcement is “imminent”, was all his agent Simon Bayliff would say this week, and it is possible that a deal could be announced as soon as the week after the British Tour. It is known that Cavendish has been in discussion with three other teams: Trek, Tinkoff-Saxo, and MTN-Qhubeka, but in an era of tight budgets, it seems that a move to any of those three – which would probably involve his key lead-out man Mark Renshaw – is conditional upon his bringing a co-sponsor in with him.
MTN’s head Brian Smith confirmed that this is the condition that has to be met for Cavendish to join them. “Everything is positive towards it, but who pays for him to come? We are a team that likes to create opportunities for all its riders, we can’t just be about one rider, but Cav seemed prepared to adapt. We’re flattered by him thinking of it, everything is possible, it’s just the money situation; we can’t afford him.” Smith said that if Cavendish were to arrive, that would enable MTN to move up from the second-tier, ProContinental, to WorldTour level.
Cavendish has enjoyed a prolific season, winning 13 races in locations as diverse as Argentina, Turkey, Dubai, California and Flanders, but the list includes only one stage win at the Tour de France as against the four, five or six he won annually between 2008 and 2011. That is one fact for a potential team to ponder, so too the possibility that he may want to race the track omnium at the Rio Olympic Games next year.
Today’s hilly stage through north Wales and Tuesday’s leg through the Scottish borders could favour the lighter sprinters who can get over the climbs – Cavendish rather than Greipel perhaps, or Swift – while Wednesday’s run down the north-east coast to Blyth and Saturday’s lengthy stage through East Anglia look more straightforward, as does Sunday’s central London finale.
Wednesday’s mountain-top finish on Hartside Fell, high up in the Pennines, should be decisive for the overall standings, with victory set to be contested by a diverse group of favourites including the British national champion Peter Kennaugh, the American Taylor Phinney, or possibly a one-day specialist such as Cavendish’s team-mate Zdenek Stybar.
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