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LONDON, England (AFP) – A host of the world’s top cyclists are plotting to stop Mark Cavendish from giving Britain a dream start to the Olympics on the opening day of the Games on Saturday.
Cavendish, the reigning world champion and a 23-time stage winner on the world’s biggest bike race, will line up as the hot favorite for gold in the 250km men’s road race that begins and ends on The Mall.
But while world cycling chief Pat McQuaid and even International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge have voiced their support of the Isle of Man rider’s gold medal bid, his rivals are determined to spoil the party.
“Britain have an incredibly strong team, with one of the strongest (riders) in the race,” said American sprint specialist Tyler Farrar. “(But) I don’t think the medals have been decided just yet.”
New Zealander Greg Henderson’s day job in the Lotto team is to help German sprinter André Greipel beat Cavendish, and he believes Britain won’t have it easy.
“Cavendish needs a team around him, which he has got, but it’ll be interesting to see after 250km how much of that team he’s got left,” said Henderson.
The Olympics are not like the Tour de France.
A maximum of five riders are allowed in each team and the field is not permitted to use the radio earpieces so prevalent in and coveted by the professional peloton.
Tactically, it will also be a minefield.
While some teams boast sprint specialists to rival Cavendish, such as Greipel, Australia’s Matt Goss and Peter Sagan of Slovakia, others, like Spain and Italy, do not.
“There’s going to be several teams trying to make the race really hard and drop the sprinters and other teams will be trying to keep it together for a sprint,” said Farrar.
Teams like Belgium, which possesses a strong sprinter in former world champion Tom Boonen, know that beating the Manxman in a bunch sprint is almost a lost cause.
“We’ll certainly not look for a sprint,” said Belgian ace Philippe Gilbert. “Even Boonen says he’ll find it difficult against guys like Cavendish, Sagan and Greipel.”
Swiss Michael Albasini has the job of increasing the pace on the Box Hill circuit, which features nine times, in a bid to drop sprinters and bolster his team leader Fabian Cancellara’s gold bid.
Even if he does not succeed, he is hoping Goss, his professional teammate at Orica-GreenEdge, beats Cavendish.
“Cavendish is the sprinter who came out in the best condition at the Tour, better than Greipel and the other specialists,” said Albasini. “We’ll try to avoid a bunch sprint, but in that case, I hope my teammate Goss can finish in front of him.”
Due to Slovakia’s comparatively low UCI ranking, Sagan is a one-man team. But he comes into the race fresh from winning three stages at the Tour de France where he also won the sprinters’ green jersey.
The 22-year-old sensation can win on climbs, flat finishes — like The Mall — or a rising false flat. American Chris Horner believes the Slovakian has the wherewithal to single-handedly destroy Britain’s cycling gold hopes on the opening day.
“I think he is the biggest threat Cavendish has,” said Horner, who at 40 years old is the oldest cyclist at the Games.
“He’s going to destroy the field up the climb at some point. He’s not going to want to come to the finish with Cavendish.
“I would put him down in this race as my absolute favorite here if he can race with the same form he has had all year, which I don’t see why not.”