Cav’s back, but is he riding scared?

Cav’s back. After a month without a race, Mark Cavendish has returned with two stage wins from two in the Tour of Turkey.

I’d sort of forgotten about him, to be honest. I mean, not literally, but he’d drifted off my radar as the cycling world focused on the cobbles and then the Ardennes classics.

Sitting out from racing for a month after illness helped to push him under the radar, but even the talk of sprinters has recently revolved around Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb.

The emergence of Kittel in particular has shaken up the sprint hierarchy: there’s now a legitimate debate to be had over whether Cavendish is still the top man.

Cavendish’s numbers are slightly down on his 2013 season to this point on the calendar, but last year he blitzed the Tour of Qatar to the tune of four stages and the overall victory. This season Cav rode the Tour of Dubai instead, where Kittel returned the favour, winning every road stage while Cav didn’t trouble the top ten in any of them.

But if Cavendish is no longer the unbackable favourite in every flat stage, he’s still reliably winning races: this was his third individual stage win this season (he won a sprint stage each at the Volta ao Algarve and at Tirreno-Adriatico). Not a bad return despite missing almost all of April.

Cavendish also finished a creditable 5th at Milan-Sanremo.

After missing a month, most riders would take a few races to find their legs, but the Manxman seemed to slot straight back into form, easily accounting for Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Theo Bos (Belkin) in stage 1 in Turkey.

That he did it with an inexperienced lead-out train that dropped him off a stop too early, forcing him to freelance his way to the line, is extra impressive.

Now, the Tour of Turkey is certainly no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It’s a UCI 2.HC categorised race with a dubious reputation for producing dodgy results (the last two overall winners were later disqualified for doping).

No, the main game is the Giro d’Italia, which starts in just over a week’s time, in Ireland. The first Grand Tour of the year and the chance to see all the top sprinters going head to head…

Cavendish isn’t riding the Giro.

Instead, he’s going to finish the Tour of Turkey, head over to the US for the EPO Tour of California, then the Tour de Suisse, on the way to his major objective for the season: stage 1 of the Tour de France.

No, really? But he won five Giro stages last year and still rode at the Tour!

The reason Cav is so focused on the first day of the Tour is that it finished in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where his mother was born. It’s sentimental for him, and that’s endearing. He wants to win in his mother’s home town.

But, no Giro?

Really, he’s not riding the Giro. I know, it’s difficult to accept. I’m really disappointed, too.

This leaves the sprint stages wide open for Kittel, with Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) also contesting. Cav’s absence is good news for Australian fans, as it gives Matthews a great’y improved chance to increase his tally of Grand Tour stage victories.

Cavendish’s OPQS team will send veteran sprinter Alessandro Petacchi along, but the team is really built to support Rigoberto Uran’s GC bid.

I’ve got a theory about why Cavendish is skipping the Italian race.

I think he’s worried about Kittel. The big German with the best hair in world sport took Cav to the cleaners in the Tour last year, officially putting him on notice.

Cavendish can no longer be assured of winning the big sprints if he’s even a touch below his best form. In years past, Cav was clearly the fastest guy in the peloton, and even on a mediocre day he was able to win bunch sprints virtually at will.

That is no longer true.

Now, if he wants to win in Harrogate (and he really, really does) he can’t afford to be even slightly fatigued from a gruelling Giro campaign.

Given that he’s just spent a month on the sidelines and is missing race days, that’s an especially serious risk.

No, if he wants to beat Kittel in Yorkshire on July 5th, Cav needs to be able to hone his preparation perfectly and arrive in England razor sharp. Picking a series of shorter stage races is the way to do it.

Winning stages in the Tour of Turkey is just the first step.

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