Mark Cavendish is quietly hopeful of a bunch sprint finish at Milan-San Remo tomorrow where he and Classics patriarch Tom Boonen will race for the first time together as teammates.
The Monument and next weekend’s Ghent-Wevelgem are perhaps the only two events the amicable pair will both start with an equal chance of winning.
Speaking together at a team press conference in Milan last night, they were relatively hush on tactics but contributed to the mounting pressure on outright favourite, Peter Sagan and his Cannondale team, tipping it will get little help from the peloton Sunday.
“I think we have to count on the strength of our team,” Boonen said.
“It would be stupid now to just say we’ll go for the sprint and we just aim for Mark or we just aim for me. I think we have maybe three guys who will be able to go in the breakaway after Le Manie, put the pressure on the other teams and then try to have as many guys as possible back in the final.”
Boonen has the strength to vie for line honours should he clear the Poggio whilst Cavendish has the speed, and the odds tip more in the Manxman’s favour the bigger the bunch at the end of the 298km race. His success may hinge more so on the plans of other outfits and whether a mass sprint is in its interests, as much as the weather.
“It’s not about being able to make a sprint, it’s about staying there, staying there and that still needs a whole team to do I believe,” Cavendish said.
“A sprint team can’t keep the race together in San Remo. You’ve just got to hope you’ve got numbers there after every climb.”
The 23-time Tour stage winner hasn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, arrive at his Classics specialist squad and ask for a fully dedicated team at Milan-San Remo this year, which he has had previously, and will have at July’s Tour de France.
“The Tour de France is my big goal. That’s what I’m employed here to achieve,” he said.
“I haven’t built my season up around peaking at this time so without doing that I really can’t say they’re [Milan-San Remo and Ghent-Wevelgem] a priority. But for sure I’m expected to do well in the majority of bike races I enter.”
Milan-San Remo is virtually the only Classic Boonen hasn’t won having finished third to Oscar Freire in 2007 and second in 2010 – the last time the race was decided in a big group finish.
The 32-year-old is on the comeback from illness that disrupted his pre-season but prioritised a win in Italy – the missing jewel in his glittering Classics crown, which last year included victory at the Tour of Flanders and a record fourth Paris-Roubaix title – over a fourth Ghent-Wevelgem title.
“I don’t have the luxury of saying I have the reserve I had last year,” Boonen said of his inadvertent late season start.
“For me it’s a really hard race to win. You either have to be the fastest guy, or the best descender, or the best guy on the climb. Until now, I’ve never been one of these three,” he continued.
“I could have won [in 2010] if Freire was less strong. I was really good going into San Remo but Freire, when he was good it was almost impossible to beat him. That’s one thing, sometimes it’s not only you that decides the result it’s also the other guys.
“The year I could have won it was in 2007. I really had the legs to sprint for the victory and I got blocked so sometimes you’re not that lucky.
“Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are races that suit me better and I always focus a little bit more on them, maybe that’s true, but even then I think if I focused 100 per cent on Milan – San Remo, which I did in the past, I didn’t win there also.”
Cavendish recalls more television images than anything else from his narrow 2009 triumph over Heinrich Haussler, which doubles as the last time in was in the mix at the finish. Then with Highroad he had two teammates each at the Manie, Cipressa and Poggio, which is unlikely to be the case this season with Omega Pharma set to dedicate more resources to Boonen.
“George Hincapie must be the first person in the history of San Remo to actually be purposefully losing positions on the descent from the Poggio. There are images on the descent of him looking behind waiting for me,” the 2011 world champion explained.
“I got over the top and they said on the radio, ‘Cav’s there,’” he continued with an inflection. “So George is waiting but I was a little back. I was moving my way up, he’s moving his way back and as we hit the bottom we found each other and he took me to the front. That was it. Haussler went early, everyone else was content with second place but I pushed all my chips on the table. I thought I’m not riding for second so if they come past, they come past me. I just went and kept going to the line.”
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