Opinion: Astana Qazaqstan's faith in Mark Cavendish will pay off at the Tour de France

With the litany of talent built around Mark Cavendish, there is no reason why he can't win a 35th Tour stage in 2024

Clock12:19, Thursday 5th October 2023
Luis León Sánchez may be retiring at the end of 2023, but his place in Mark Cavendish's lead-out train will soon be filled

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Luis León Sánchez may be retiring at the end of 2023, but his place in Mark Cavendish's lead-out train will soon be filled

In the last 12 months, Astana Qazaqstan have undergone one of the more startling changes in the WorldTour, going from a floundering GC team to one that is targeting one specific goal: winning bunch sprints in the world's biggest races.

It is a target the Kazakh team had never before aimed for but, with the support and investment they have put behind British sprinter Mark Cavendish, their faith will surely pay off at the 2024 Tour de France and fill many other teams with a tinge of regret.

Read more: 'It's not over yet' – Mark Cavendish to continue racing in 2024

By the end of 2022, Astana Qazaqstan had fired their prize asset Miguel Angel López, seen Alexey Lutsenko reach his ceiling of eighth at the Tour de France, and were saying goodbye to four-time Grand Tour winner, Vincenzo Nibali. They were a team rudderless and in need of a project to throw their weight behind.

But this is the WorldTour and Alexander Vinokourov's side were not the only outfit struggling for a sense of purpose. Ineos Grenadiers, for example, were saying goodbye to the retiring Richie Porte, a third-place finisher at the Tour de France in 2020, with Adam Yates and Richard Carapaz both departing for pastures new. Egan Bernal had suffered his horrendous crash at the start of the year and in his absence, the British side were without a rider capable of seriously challenging for the Tour de France title.

One of these sides decided to stick with the status quo and stumble through another season of relative underachievement, with the idea of a long-term plan still weighing over their heads. The other is Astana Qazaqstan.

Read more: Geraint Thomas: Ineos Grenadiers has been in transition for a couple of years

Astana Qazaqstan took a late punt on Mark Cavendish and the Giro d'Italia proved them correct

With Nibali and López out of the side, Astana Qazaqstan had money to play with for 2023 and decided to throw their weight behind Mark Cavendish, who was leaving the safe haven of Soudal Quick-Step and had recently been let down by Jérôme Pineau’s failed B&B Hotels project.

Alongside Cavendish, Vinokourov squeezed his budget to acquire the services of Luis León Sánchez and Cees Bol, two riders the Kazakh team hoped would at least provide some semblance of a lead-out for the late-signing of Cavendish.

Amongst their ranks already lay Gianni Moscon, who Cavendish soon identified as an important rider to bring him into the final couple of kilometres.

It was not the A-team lead-out of old that Cavendish had enjoyed at previous sides, but this was unknown territory for Astana Qazaqstan and the late acquisition of Cavendish left the team with little room to manoeuvre on the transfer front. It would have to do, simply put.

The early signs were not good. Bar a third place on the opening stage of the UAE Tour, Cavendish's partnership with Bol looked ragged, with the pair operating together for the first time and Bol himself making the first pedal strokes into transitioning from a bonafide sprinter to lead-out man.

However, third place at Scheldeprijs signalled room for optimism, and various close calls at the Giro d'Italia saw them heading into the final week with hope for what the Manxman may be able to achieve on the final day in Rome.

Read more: Mark Cavendish back riding alongside Chris Froome as Astana director praises ‘champion’ sprinter ahead of return

It should be noted that, at this point, Cavendish had not won a Grand Tour stage in over a year and whilst his comeback to top form in 2021 had been astounding, Quick-Step put their faith in Fabio Jakobsen over Cavendish at the 2022 Tour de France. Many had started to question once more whether or not Cavendish's time at the very top had come to its end at last.

Cavendish was 38 years old and had announced his retirement at the end of the season. Marcel Kittel's final Grand Tour stage victory came at 29 years of age, Andre Greipel's at 34, Robbie McEwan's at 35, Mario Cipollini's at 36 and Alessandro Petacchi's at 37. Time was not on his side, but still, Astana Qazaqstan's faith prevailed.

In domineering fashion, the man known as the 'Manx Missile' triumphed on the final stage of the Giro d'Italia and became the oldest rider in history to win a stage at the race.

Read more: Giro d'Italia stage 21: Mark Cavendish takes final stage

A tearful early exit from the Tour de France followed, with a broken collarbone, but Cavendish has announced the postponement of his retirement and Astana Qazaqstan have doubled down on their trust in the Tour de France joint-record stage holder.

In this writer's opinion, Cavendish remains a rider capable of winning on the grandest stage and Astana Qazaqstan should be applauded for the trust they have shown in the veteran sprinter.

With Cavendish's determination, Astana Qazaqstan's latest round of recruits – more on that shortly – and the little bit of luck that evaded him this summer, Cavendish can be expected to bow out from the Tour de France in triumphant fashion next summer by breaking the record number of stage victories that he currently shares with the legendary Eddy Merckx.

Astana Qazaqstan get the band back together – what can we expect?

Ahead of this summer's Tour de France, Astana Qazaqstan exemplified their growing confidence in Mark Cavendish by hiring the services of former lead-out extraordinaire Mark Renshaw as a sprinting consultant during the Tour. Renshaw had, after all, led Cavendish to many of his career triumphs and their pairing was so successful that the duo finished 1-2 on the Champs-Élysées in the 2009 Tour de France.

The pair were unable to make their reunion pay dividends at this summer's Tour given Cavendish's stage 8 crash, but Astana Qazaqstan have moved quickly to secure a historic trident around the Manxman for 2024.

With Cavendish's one-year contract extension announced on Wednesday, the WorldTeam soon unveiled the signings of Michael Mørkøv as a rider and Vasilis Anastopoulos as Head of Performance, both from Soudal Quick-Step.

Read more:

Mørkøv has long been one of the top lead-out riders on the planet and was instrumental in Cavendish's four stage victories at the 2021 Tour de France, whilst trainer Anastopoulos has been regularly praised by Cavendish as being a lightning rod for the Brit's rejuvenation in 2021 after years in the victory wilderness.

With Renshaw also expected to play a role with Astana Qazaqstan next season, the three main figures surrounding Cavendish for 2024 will be a lead-out rider, consultant, and trainer with whom he has enjoyed the most successful moments of his professional career.

What is more, theirs is not the only personnel whom Astana Qazaqstan have courted in order to give Cavendish the greatest opportunity at winning at the Tour de France next season.

Mørkøv's admission to Rasmus Nowak Franklin of Ekstra Bladet that Cavendish tapped up his services only a day after leaving this summer's Tour de France reveals that the 38-year-old has long been of the ambition to continue in 2024, and Astana Qazaqstan's recruitment has been tailored as such - despite the news of the retirement postponement only being revealed on Wednesday.

Alongside Mørkøv, the Kazakh side have hired Ide Schelling (Bora-Hansgrohe), Anthon Charmig (Uno-X Pro Cycling), Max Kanter (Movistar) and Davide Ballerini (Soudal Quick-Step). The latter duo will serve to replace the soon-to-be-retired Luis León Sánchez and bolster Cavendish's now-blossoming lead-out train.

With Anastopoulos and Vinokourov pulling the strings from above, and aided by the expertise of Renshaw, Astana Qazaqstan may well claim to boast the strongest sprinting department in the entire WorldTour for 2024.

Have other teams missed a trick?

Cavendish may be 38 years of age, but he has already proved time and time again throughout his career that he is a rider like no other. Not only is he the greatest sprinter of all time, but Cavendish has an almost unrivalled sense of determination and self-belief that will give him the same confidence heading into next season as he had when he was a young whipper-snapper making his name on the HTC-High Road team.

“I am going to be honest with you, we had a meeting in December [2020] and just after ten minutes, I saw that I had to deal with a teenager, not with a guy who was 36 years old that everybody thought he was finished," was the reflection of Anastopoulos when talking to The Cycling Podcast in April 2021.

Over two years on and that fire inside Cavendish is still burning bright, as shown by his retirement postponement and immediate phone calls to Mørkøv following his Tour de France withdrawal.

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In the space of 12 months, Astana Qazaqstan have gone from an inconsequential, second-rate GC outfit, to a team boasting one of the most popular riders in the world and an impressive squad to match.

With Anastopoulos, Renshaw and Mørkøv amongst their ranks, they will be more than confident of guiding Cavendish to Grand Tour stage wins in 2024, and rightly so. Theirs is a tale now unlike all others in the WorldTour and perhaps others could learn a lesson or two from their culture change.

Cavendish was without a contract this time last year, and it was Astana Qazaqstan who footed the bill to offer him an opportunity. Their faith was proved correct at the Giro d'Italia in May and, should he avoid bad luck at next year's Tour de France - easier said than done - Cavendish can rightfully stake his claim to challenging the likes of Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) for victories on the sport's grandest stage.

'Project 35,' you say? I think it is well and truly on. It will just take one more year, hey?

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