Speaking to VeloNews, Astana-Qazaqstan sport director Stefano Zanini said the team’s patience will eventually pay off in the hectic bunch sprints.
“From my point of view, we are very satisfied, considering that he arrived at the end of December, and to organize a sprint train so fast is not so easy,” Zanini said Tuesday. “During racing it’s not easy to find that feeling. We have the riders to be there for him in the sprint, but a train is something you have to work on a lot.”
Expectations were sky-high for the team with Cavendish’s high-profile move to Astana-Qazaqstan late in 2022.
Yet so far in 2023, Cavendish has raced 23 races, and his best was third in stage 1 at the UAE Tour. By this time last year, Cavendish already racked up three victories. Most of the peloton’s top sprinters have picked up at least one win so far in 2023.
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Zanini said there’s no reason to panic.
“We have to keep working to find that feeling for the sprint,” Zanini said. “What’s needed is that we need to do more races together and to keep trying and trying and trying. Above all, any sprinter, and in this case, Mark Cavendish, has to have faith in their teammates.”
Zanini downplayed expectations for Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs, which Cavendish won three times, the last of which was in 2011, but said the team will be backing him in the mid-week Belgian classic.
“He’s coming off a period when he wasn’t feeling good, and he was sick with an intestinal problem,” Zanini said. “He’s rebounded, and the team will be all around him and will racing for him at Scheldeprijs. He has to have full trust in the team and follow it all the way to the end.”
Waiting for the sprint train to come together
Zanini pointed out several factors of why Cavendish hasn’t been at the pointy end of the sprints so far this season.
Cavendish hit third and another pair of top-10s at the UAE Tour that were promising signs that things are coming together.
Since then, he’s not been a factor in the sprints, or when he’s arrived to the line in the final, for one reason or another has not contested the sprints.
“Mark joined the team late, and training for it was not easy. He arrived in Spain and the weather wasn’t great, and he did some races, and a few times he’s been sick,” Zanini said. “Also here in Belgium, he’s lost a couple of days of training due to some stomach problems, so we hope his form will improve for the upcoming races.”
After the collapse of the B&B Hotels project, Cavendish found a new ride with the Kazakh-backed team. Everything came together late in the season, and that last-minute preparation is playing out on the road.
So far through much of the early season, Cavendish has been reticent to speak to the media, and only gives a few short answers to TV cameras before the start of races in the mixed zones.
Zanini insisted it’s just a matter of time before the pieces come together.
“I’d say things are going very good. He’s polite and nice and always available,” Zanini said. “Since that first sprint in Oman he was always involving all of his teammates. That was a good bit of work that I had never seen before by Astana. The team was really riding well and compact as a group. It’s just in that moment Cavendish wasn’t in great condition or form, but those first sprints were really good.”
His arrival to the team managed by Alexander Vinokourov caught some by surprise, especially considering that Astana is a team renowned for its pedigree in GC in grand tours and one-week races, and as stage-hunters across the calendar.
The team’s scrambled to pull together a leadout train to help position Cavendish for the bunch sprints, tapping such riders as new arrival Cees Bol, and existing riders Lars Martin, Yevgeniy Fedorov, and Gleb Syritsa.
“I think he needs to continue to work with his teammates, with those guys who will be part of his train, so they all need to try on every occasion when there is a chance to sprint to get that mechanism working for the sprint,” Zanini said. “Those guys, Bol, Martin, Syritsa, Federov, these are the guys who have the potential and strength to do it. So we’ll see, we’ll see … ”
Heading for the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France
The team is banking that Cavendish and his newborn sprint train will find its groove in time for the Giro d’Italia in May and at the Tour de France in July.
Cavendish is tied with Eddy Merckx with 34 stage victories, and only needs one more in July to set the all-time mark.
Zanini confirmed Cavendish will race the Giro di Sicilia from April 11-4 ahead of a return to the Giro, where he won a stage last year.
What are the expectations for the Giro?
“The Giro? Well, the hope is one, two, three … four, five, six stage wins!” he said. “Who knows?”