For my first fanpost I’ve tried to include something for everyone. Its a history post about Cav but to keep the Bah brigade happy its actually all about everyone’s favourite 4th Grand Tour – the Tour de Pologne.
Rod Ellingworth and Dave Brailsford sat down in Autumn 2008 to discuss "Project Rainbow Jersey" -their aim to win the Men’s Elite World Championship Road Race for Great Britain. They quickly decided on 3 necessary ingredients: the first was obvious – Mark Cavendish, the fastest sprinter in the world and already showing his prodigious talent for winning races at just 23 years of age. The second was a flat course, that would be likely to finish in a bunch sprint. Copenhagen in 2011 seemed a good bet to offer this, with the highest point of Zealand being barely 100m above sea level. The third and most difficult to achieve was a strong team of riders to support Cavendish, chase breaks and lead out the sprint.
Others have written about how that team was pulled together and trained to deliver Cav to the line in Copenhagen. My abiding memory will be of that epic turn on the front by Bradley Wiggins on the final lap. What not many people have written about though is the importance of the 2011 Tour de Pologne to Cavendish’s rainbow jersey success. Read on to find out how a race in Poland he wasn’t even at was probably the most important race of Cavendish’s career.
In 2006 and 2007 GB had only qualified 3 riders to the worlds road race and even in the good years of 2005 and 2008 they had maxed out at 6 riders qualified through placings at minor races on the UCI Europe Tour.
To get 9 riders and compete with the likes of Italy, France and Spain, GB would need more riders, scoring more points on the UCI World Tour. Only the top 10 nations in the World Tour rankings in the run up to the World Championships would get more than 6 riders. With only 6 British riders racing at the elite Pro Tour level, including some reliable domestiques like Charlie Wegelius and Jeremy Hunt who were unlikely to win many Pro Tour points, it was clear more World Tour British riders would be needed.
At the start of 2009 however there were only 4 British World Tour riders: The big names of Wiggins, Cavendish and Millar being joined only by Wegelius as Jeremy Hunt and Roger Hammond signed for the Pro Conti Cervélo TestTeam. Ben Swift and Adam Blythe also signed on as stagiaires for Katusha and Silence Lotto later in the season. Despite the small numbers Cavendish’s win at Milan - San Remo and Bradley Wiggins’ 4th place at the Tour de France helped Great Britain to be ranked 9th leading up the Worlds at Mendrisio and 9 British riders were on the start line of the men’s road race for the first time. Only 2 men (Steve Cummings and Roger Hammond) finished the race but Britain were starting to be able to compete as one of the major world cycling nations.
In 2010 with the launch of the Team Sky juggernaut it seemed things were looking up for the Project Rainbow Jersey plan. GB could boast 13 World Tour riders including 8 at Team Sky and 3 at Garmin. However a disastrous Tour de France campaign for Bradley Wiggins and a relatively quiet classics campaign from Cavendish meant that GB dropped to 16th in the rankings with Cav’s impressive 5 Tour de France stage wins worth relatively little in World Tour ranking points compared to one day and overall stage race success. A change in the rules meant that points could not be scored by World Tour riders in the UCI Europe Tour races, this combined with Sky having siphoned off much of the top domestic cycling talent to mean that GB only qualified 3 riders rather than the 6 they might have hoped to get in previous years with decent performances in the UCI Europe tour races.
A further rule change in 2011 meant that only World Tour riders could score points and that nations would only get more than 6 riders if more than 6 had scored points in World Tour races. If Cavendish’s dream of rainbow stripes in Copenhagen was to come true then more than half of the record 15 British World Tour riders would need to have scored points by the time the Eneco Tour came to a close in August.
Ben Swift took an excellent 3rd place in the Tour Down Under with 2 stage wins to get the campaign off to a great start, Bradley Wiggins podiumed at Paris - Nice and then won the Dauphine to push the GB ranking safely inside the top 10 even before his crash at the Tour de France. The important issue now was quantity of riders scoring even 1 point not quality of points won. A fifth place for Geraint Thomas in the sprint on stage 3 of Paris – Nice earned him a solitary point and he picked up another 4 points with 10th in the Tour of Flanders. David Millar scored 5 points at the Tour of Romandie thanks to a 5th place in the Prologue and 10th overall as well as an ITT win in Milan on the last day of the Giro D’Italia. Cavendish of course chipped in with his customary stage wins at the Giro and Tour but at the end of July only 5 British riders had scored points and it looked like Cav would be heading for Copenhagen with only 5 riders to support him.
Then in August a heroic Polish campaign by some of the less heralded British riders made the difference to Cav’s rainbow jersey success. Omega Pharma Lotto’s Adam Blythe began the week sprinting strongly with 10th in stage 1 and 9th in stage 2, just out of the points behind the dominant Marcel Kittel. Finally on stage 3 his efforts were rewarded when he sneaked a single point for a 5th place finish.
As the race moved into hillier terrain on stage 4 the week’s second dominant finisher emerged with Peter Sagan winning the next 2 stages. On stage 5 however Cav’s fellow Manxman Peter Kennaugh managed to pick up a point with a 5th place finish in Zakopane to guarantee a 7th rider for the GB Worlds squad.
Finally a strong ride from Steve Cummings on Stage 6 at Bukovina forced a split in the field and moved him up to 9th in the overall standings, a position he kept to the end of the race that was worth 10 World Tour points.
Great Britain now had 8 riders qualified for the Road Race in Copenhagen and Mark Cavendish’s support team was able to ensure his dominant sprint performance would bring the Men’s Road Race Rainbow Jersey back to Britain for only the second time.