Mark Cavendish, former world champion and green jersey winner, is leaving his current team Sky and moving to the Belgian team Omega Pharma - Quickstep under a three-year contract. The transfer, which had been rumored for well over a month, wast confirmed this morning by a statement on Team Sky's website.
Cavendish began hinting he would leave the team only a year into his two-year contract late in the season after what was likely a disappointing Tour de France. This July, Cav's support in the sprints was sorely lacking as Sky built a team built around Bradley Wiggins' overall ambitions. Though he received two superb leadouts from Wiggins in the latter half of the race, including a marvelous effort on the Champs Élysées, Cavendish only netted three stage wins and never factored in the fight for the green jersey. With Sky's avowed interest continuing the project of becoming a grand tour squad built around Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, the decision to leave was only logical, a sentiment which even Bradley Wiggins echoed despite his fondness for the Manx sprinter.
At Omega Pharma - Quickstep, Cavendish should find a team much more dedicated to securing victories in the sprints, especially in grand tours. Though Tony Martin has shown hints of promise as an overall contender, he is still unproven and not likely to receive a fully dedicated support squad until he confirms. The same can be same of Peter Velits. And while Tom Boonen used to be a perennial stage and green jersey contender at the Tour de France, his focus has long since shifted towards the spring classics so little conflict of interest exists there. The firepower to build a dedicated leadout train exists, especially with Gert Steegmans in last position. Back in Tom Boonen's sprinting days, Tommeke once described Steegman's final leadout as like being on a TGV train.
Why now? In order for Cavendish's UCI points to count towards securing a World Tour license, the signing had to be announced by October 20th - this Saturday. After the dismissal of Levi Leipheimer yesterday for his admission to having used performance enhancing drugs through 2007, Cavendish's points are no doubt welcome for their ability to help secure a World Tour license. This, however, was never in doubt as Tom Boonen, Tony Martin, and Peter Velits alone certainly would have been able to secure the license.
Leipheimer's dismissal from the team could also provide two other reasons to announce the signing now. First, as has been speculated in various places on the internet, Leipheimer's now freed salary may come in useful when trying to finalize a transfer deal, especially if Cavendish does have to pay Sky to sever his contract. Some Belgian press outlets have also speculated that Leipheimer's salary provides sufficient cushion to bring Bernard Eisel, whom Cavendish has always relied heavily on in both sprint and mountain stages, into the fold. But, with the transfer rumored for months, this seems a small detail rather than a deal breaker. Whether these are true is impossible to know, but Omega Pharma - Quickstep must be grateful for positive news after announcing their dismissal of Leipheimer.