Could a sprinter win the world championships? Mark Cavendish sure hopes so.

2011 world champion Cavendish crushes last-minute climbing camp as sprinters eye possibility of men's road race being decided by a bunch kick.

Photo: Getty Images

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Nobody thought he could win four Tour de France stages and the green jersey in the 2021 Tour de France, but he did it. Some 10 weeks later, Mark Cavendish has set half an eye on a second rainbow jersey.

Cavendish landed in Belgium this week hot off the back of a last-minute training block designed to sharpen his climbing legs ahead of a hill-riddled world championship road race in Flanders. Although the odds of a bunch gallop Sunday are slim, Cavendish plans to be elbowing at the front if it happens.

“Mark isn’t a favorite of course but if a group of 50-60 riders will go to the finish, the target is to be there,” Cavendish’s coach Vasilis Anastopoulos told VeloNews. “His form is good.”

It was a dead-cert when Cavendish outkicked Matt Goss and André Greipel when he won rainbows in Copenhagen 10 years ago in 2011. At first sight, the spiky parcours on tap Sunday looks to be a pure sprinter’s worst nightmare, with the unrelenting ascents far more the territory of classics terrors like Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe, and Mathieu van der Poel.

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However, the wild and wacky dynamic of any major championship, where there are no race radios and far-from seamless team tactics, means anything can happen – just ask the Dutch women’s Olympic team.

Caleb Ewan, Fernando Gaviria, Pascal Ackermann, and Peter Sagan are other ascent-averse climbers hoping that a small group can make the finish in downtown Leuven. Although 40-plus hills scattered through 270km will make it as tough as it could possibly be for the fast men, Cavendish has been leaving nothing to chance in the past weeks.

The Manxman and Anastopoulos – the coach that returned Cavendish to the top of the Tour de France this summer – are hoping that six days of intensive training in Greece have given him the 36-year-old sprint legend the legs to withstand an attritional trek through Flanders.

“The camp lasted six days, so every day we worked on different aspects, but mostly focused on short explosive climbs,” Anastopoulos said this week.

Too selective for a sprint?

A closer look at the route for Sunday’s race shows a whole menu of climbs, some as long as one kilometer and others nudging up to 15 percent in places. But there’s no signature leg-breaker like the Höttinger Höll which decided the 2018 race through Innsbruck.

Lots of short sharp ascents are on the menu this weekend.

Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel and director of this year’s worlds has likened his route for this weekend as an “extended version” of Brabantse Pijl, a race typically decided in a sprint from only the strongest of survivors.

A video shared by Anastopoulos shows Cavendish kicking his way through a training effort last week looking every bit the mountain goat. But Cavendish and Team GB are keeping realistic. Tom Pidcock – winner of this year’s Brabantse Pijl – is likely to play the lead role alongside rising star Ethan Hayter, and Cavendish will play captain on the road and “wise head” in the team bus.

The dozens of climbs that Cavendish and Co. have to face Sunday may not have one key kingmaker, but they will all stack up. The men’s race is reported to amass some 2,500 meters of ascent, and top favorite van Aert has forecasted a race of elimination.

“Perhaps it will appear on TV that the racing will only start late, but then the door at the back may have been open for a long time,” van Aert said Thursday. “The succession of the slopes will take its toll at some point.”

However, with a forecast for showery rain Sunday, bloody-mindedness and belligerence could play just as much a part as climbing capacity and outright speed, and several teams like Australia and Germany will be doing all they can to control the race and set up a sprint.

Like Cavendish and Anastopoulos, three-time world champ Sagan isn’t getting his bibs in knots about how hard the course is just yet.

“I’m not worried. With such a long course, almost 270 km, you will come to a difficult race anyway,” Sagan said this week. “Sure, it depends on how you race, but it will be fun. After each cobblestone slope there is a flat section, but if the weather is bad and the wind is blowing well, it can be a nice, hectic race.”

Never say never

World championship road races are days where anything can happen, and even the most unlikely of candidates will have half a mind on victory Sunday. After winning the race in Copenhagen 10 years ago and amassing dozens of grand tour stages in the time since, the recently resurgent Cavendish will be one crossing his fingers and toes for things miraculously play his way when he goes to bed Saturday night.

“I don’t think it will be a bunch sprint, but a small group will go to the finish,” Anastopoulos said. “It will rain also on Sunday, so that will make things harder for a bunch sprint.”

Cavendish may need a minor miracle to be in contention for the final come Sunday afternoon. But after his defiant leveling up of the Merckx record at this year’s Tour, perhaps 2021 is the year that Cavendish can make anything happen.

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