Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by Astana Qazaqstan
No one would have predicted Mark Cavendish starting 2023 as the Astana Qazaqstan team leader, but this most surprising of transfers could well suit both sides perfectly
Looking back over the professional cycling winter, the weirdest saga of them all was the Mark Cavendish contract soap opera. Sometimes I wondered if the on-off, will he-won’t he, drip-drip of endless speculation, not to mention covertly snapped pics, had been masterminded by some deeply Macchiavellian PR man out to milk every bit of publicity he could for Astana.
Then I would wonder if now was the time to launch an ironic Twitter feed entitled “has Mark Cavendish signed for Astana yet?”, at which point I would see a non-ironic headline stating “Mark Cavendish still hasn’t signed for Astana” and realise we were a long way outside the realms of irony.
As well as restoring my flagging will to live once the announcement finally came, where does Mark Cavendish’s move leave the man himself? Post the demise of B&B, this is probably as good as he was ever going to get, and in fact, moving to Astana might work out better than the B&B move promised to do. There are fewer specialist lead-out men at Astana, admittedly, but at least Astana aren’t trying to go from being a small team to a big one, which rarely happens without a few glitches. It’s easier to drop into a relatively stable, established structure, even if in 2022 it was far from a prolifically winning one.
Students of the sport’s anti-doping ups and downs over the last two decades will know that Astana head man Alexandr Vinokourov’s reputation precedes him. Indeed, casting my mind back 15 and a half years to when Cav’ began his career at the relaunched T-Mobile, at the 2007 Tour Cav was a fresh-faced youngster of massive ambition, while Vino’ was (not) answering questions from the likes of me about his connections to the notorious Michele Ferrari and his penchant for training in black.
No one, back then, would have anticipated that, 15 years and 161 professional wins later, Cav might potentially conclude his career racing for a team managed by Vino’. But then, even six months ago, no one would have expected this deal; it was at that level of unlikeliness. Such are the twists and turns of professional sport.
How will it pan out? Two years ago, the assumption was that Cav was on the downward spiral towards the pipe and carpet slippers of retirement and that, with Sam Bennett rampant, he would struggle to make a mark at QuickStep. There were good reasons why the move might work out, but not even the most optimistic would have expected the relationship between Bennett and Patrick Lefevere to deteriorate as it did, with the outcome we all know.
The arguments against this marriage of convenience working: Astana have never specialised in sprint trains, and don’t have the world’s best lead-out man ready and waiting for any incoming fastman, as QuickStep did, and still do. Vino and Cav are two strong, demanding personalities and if the relationship goes downhill, neither is Mr Compromise. Cav isn’t getting any younger and the sprint scene is getting more unpredictable – Sam Welsford to have more wins by the end of January than Fabio Jakobsen anyone? Astana don’t have a prolific winning heritage as QuickStep so obviously do.
In favour: the signing of Cees Bol is shrewd, looking at the speed he’s showing at the Saudi Tour. These days, which teams have a full, perfectly organised lead-out train? From where I’m sitting, most take a far more random, last-minute approach. If not as fast as Max Richeze, the other candidate for the place, Bol is arguably more versatile. Last year, he was basically freelancing at DSM, and he can do the same again, but with Cav tucked in behind.
If the sprint scene is increasingly unpredictable and unstructured, that plays in Cavendish’s favour as much as against him. If the established riders are looking over their shoulders at the likes of Sam Welsford, they might not notice a small Manxman. Astana aren’t a sprint team but outside Soudal-QuickStep and Bora, which teams truly rule a sprint? Most importantly, if the Manxman enjoys half-decent form, he won’t have to fight for his place at the Tour; the pressure won’t be piled on, and there shouldn’t be any internal politics about which sprinter gets to do what, given that the team’s only other real fastman is the very young Gleb Syritsa. As for Cavendish’s age, I’d argue that what you have left in the tank in your mid-late 30s is largely in the mind, and there’s a good chance if you aren’t burned out by 36, you won’t be falling apart at 37 going on 38.
Finally, the contrast in “winning” cultures… Last year, Astana won a grand total of five races. That’s precisely the same tally that Cavendish managed on his own, in what he will have ranked as a relatively quiet year. The Kazakhs would have given their eye teeth for his single Giro stage win. What that says to me is that Cavendish will be kicking into an open goal when he starts racing the week after next: coming after Astana’s very lean 2022, anything that he can win will be welcome. Nothing is certain, particularly in sprinting, but in that context, a positive dynamic is far easier to create. And once that positive dynamic is rolling, a lot is possible.