Can Cees Bol lead Mark Cavendish to Tour de France history?

Unsung Dutch sprinter is thrust into the key role of leadout man in the quest to better the Merckx mark.

Photo: Gregor Brown/VeloNews

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ALULA, Saudi Arabia (VN) — A few unexpected twists and turns in the off-season transfer market are putting Cees Bol at the center of Mark Cavendish’s quest to make Tour de France history.

The unsung Dutch sprinter is suddenly the man with the responsibility to chaperone Cavendish to the finish line and give him the chance to set the all-time record number of Tour stage wins at 35.

No pressure there.

“I think it’s one of the most unique goals in cycling, to try and break a record like that,” Bol said Monday. “Of course, that’s the big goal, but it’s also super exciting just to race with Cav and trying to go for any win in any race.”

Cavendish won four more stages during the 2021 Tour, and he rolls into 2023 tied with Merckx at 34.

And now Bol will have a front-row seat to history if Cavendish can win at least one stage at this year’s Tour.

The funny thing is that Bol didn’t even know Cavendish before this winter’s backroom drama that saw the B&B team implode and both riders landing suddenly at Astana-Qazaqstan just a few weeks ago.

“I’ve only met him a few times, apart from racing against him of course,” Bol said Monday. “I don’t know if Mark chose me, in the end Vino [Alexandr Vinokourov, Astana’s general manager] chose me, but I think we can be a good match in races.”

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Lining up for his season debut in Astana-Qazaqstan colors Monday at the Saudi Tour, a relaxed Bol answered a few questions from curious journalists.

Otherwise, it was business as usual for the 27-year-old. Bol patiently pinned on his bib number and huddled with teammates for a pre-stage meeting.

The 27-year-old doesn’t seem too phased by all the recent hype and headlines.

“It was frustrating, but I always knew that I would find a good team in the end, so I wasn’t really stressed about that,” Bol said. “You want to know where your future is, and know who you will be working with in the next years.”

Bol’s arrival to Astana-Qazaqstan was just as surprising as Cavendish’s. In fact, just a few weeks ago, both were slated to race on B&B Hotels.

Bol was off-contract after four seasons with Team DSM, and was linked to B&B Hotels, which also courted Cavendish and some other big names, including Argentine leadout man Max Richeze.

What was supposed to be a major step up for the second-tier French squad soon evaporated.

By November, the promised money never came through, and Cavendish, Bol, and others were suddenly left in a lurch at the worse possible time.

Unlikely pairing to chase a new record

Out of the cinders of the B&B fiasco came the unlikely pairing at Astana-Qazaqstan, a team packed with lithe climbers and stage hunters with hardly any sprinting pedigree.

Bol insists he wasn’t too worried about being left without a contract, and it was the connection through rider agent SEG, which represents both Bol and Cavendish, that stitched their fates even more closely together.

Cavendish had plenty of would-be suitors, but Astana-Qazaqstan unexpectedly emerged as the unlikely destination. To make room, the Kazakh team jettisoned one of its riders to its development squad, but Richeze was left out in the cold.

That means that Bol — who is no slouch in the bunch sprints with six professional wins — is being thrust into the role of leading out one of the peloton’s most legendary sprinters.

‘I’m quite tall, so he’ll have some slipstream to follow,” Bol said.

“It’s something new [sprinting] for the team, but that’s why it’s super good why Cav brings 17 years of experience in pro cycling and winning bunch sprints,” he said. “It’s about giving his experience to other riders.

“It’s not completely new, but this is the first race where we really try to work with the train.”

Bol is making his debut here at the Saudi Tour, and Cavendish will race at the Tour of Oman.

The pair will race together for the first time at the UAE Tour in late February, the first major race of the year that typically sees the peloton’s top sprinters facing off for the first time.

Bol will have some big shoes to fill. Cavendish has ridden the coattails of some of the best leadout men in the past two decades, including Mark Renshaw and Michael Mørkøv.

Bol says his experiences at Team DSM will help.

There he would split duties across the team’s fleet of young sprinters, sometimes playing the role of leadout man and sometimes sprinting for his own wins.

“I also like to sprint myself still, I have some opportunities for myself, but in the Tour de France and some other races I’ll do leadout,” he said. “We’ve seen sprints changing a little bit, it’s not necessarily like the full train, it’s more about positioning one or two guys.

“He’s the rider with the most wins in the peloton, so he knows a thing or two about sprints. In training, he knows what to do, and he gives confidence to the whole team.”

So far, Bol sees the chance to race under the tutelage of perhaps the peloton’s greatest sprinter as nothing but a blessing.

And the chance to make history with Cavendish is enthusing the entire team.

“I think we can make it work, and it will be an exciting challenge,” Bol said. “It has been good to see in the training camp how motivating he is for the whole team, and how he’s working like a professional.

“We still have to get to know each other a bit more, but we have time for that.”

The clock starts now. After the Middle East string of races, it’s back to Europe.

All roads lead to Bilbao and the start of the 2023 Tour de France.

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