Anastopoulos: Mark Cavendish's lead-out riders speak with their eyes, they don't need to say much

Greek coach discusses his departure from Quick-Step, praises Astana Qazaqstan's lead-out train and reveals changes that the team will make in 2024

Clock17:33, Wednesday 3rd January 2024
The Astana Qazaqstan team camp was full of confidence heading into the new season, with a bolstered roster and increased expectations

© Sprint Cycling Agency

The Astana Qazaqstan team camp was full of confidence heading into the new season, with a bolstered roster and increased expectations

After three seasons with Soudal Quick-Step as one of their most highly-valued coaches, Vasilis Anastopoulos has joined Mark Cavendish's all-star line-up at Astana Qazaqstan ahead of the 2024 campaign. With Michael Mørkov, Davide Ballerini and Cees Bol in line to spearhead Cavendish in sprint finishes, Anastopoulos is relishing the opportunity to contribute.

The Greek coach recently spoke with GCN at the team's winter training camp in Altea, Spain, and was quick to heap praise on what he had seen from Astana Qazaqstan's lead-out train in just a matter of days on the Costa Blanca.

"We already did some sprint sessions here and I can tell you that those guys speak with their eyes, they don't need to say much," said Anastopoulos.

"They have been racing together for so many years and now here united with Cees Bol, it is great. He is a fantastic guy for the lead-out train, so I think and I hope that next year, we’re going to have one of the best lead-out trains in the WorldTour."

Anastopoulos was not alone in noticing sparks flying in Spain. His fellow new recruit Mark Renshaw wasted no time in calling Cavendish's new leadout "miles ahead" of what the team had enjoyed at last year's Tour de France, whilst Bol could hardly contain his excitement when discussing town sign sprints that the riders had contested over the previous days.

Read more: 'It will be Ballerini, then me and then Mørkov' in Mark Cavendish's lead-out, reveals Cees Bol

Such confidence and vigour stems mainly from the transfer business that Astana Qazaqstan have been able to do over the winter. Not only have Anastopoulos and Renshaw been brought into the backroom staff, but Mørkøv and Ballerini have been signed to be by Cavendish's side throughout the season.

Astana Qazaqstan's potential sprint formation for the 2024 Tour de France

Renshaw was, of course, Cavendish's final lead-out man for many a year until the Australian's retirement in 2019, Anastopoulos oversaw Cavendish's return to winning ways at Quick-Step in 2021 and both Mørkøv and Ballerini were invaluable to the Manxman at that summer's Tour de France.

When asked by GCN whether or not it helps to have trusty former teammates back by his side in 2024, Cavendish's answer was simple: "It always does.

"You don’t have to look at what races you can try and work together to build on something with. You know you can kind of hit the ground running, I think, and it’s definitely a benefit."

Cavendish hastened to add that he has very little control over who Astana Qazaqstan bring through the doors on the transfer front. That much can be seen with the departure of Gianni Moscon to Soudal Quick-Step, whom it is understood Cavendish valued very dearly as a teammate. But the Manxman will no doubt be overjoyed at the prospect of racing alongside Mørkøv and Ballerini again in 2024.

The Greek tradition and new training methods

For Anastopoulos, happiness is key to Cavendish's success as he approaches the age of 39. For that reason, Cavendish will return to his coach's home country of Greece in April before one final altitude camp ahead of the Tour de France.

Cavendish and Anastopoulos enjoyed training blocks in Greece ahead of both the 2021 Tour de France and 2022 Giro d'Italia, two races in which the sprinter found no trouble in picking up Grand Tour stage wins.

"[Happiness] is the most important thing, because once you enjoy training then even the hard sessions are beneficial," said Anastopoulos. "For Mark now, it is all about having fun, doing the quality sessions that he needs to do and taking the benefits out of it.

"It has become a tradition of rediscovering Greece, of just him and me spending two weeks there together, riding the velodrome and riding the hills. He loves it and I can do my job perfectly well there, so it’s good."

Cavendish may have come within a mechanical of taking stage win number 35 at last summer's Tour de France, but the route for the 2024 Tour looks notoriously difficult and, for this reason, altitude camps will prove to be essential to the Manxman's preparations.

Read more:

Astana Qazaqstan will soon head to Colombia for a multi-week training block at altitude that will culminate with Cavendish's season debut at Tour Colombia, and his sprinting legion will also conduct another camp just ahead of the Tour.

"I think it's going to benefit him because being at the start of the Tour de France this year, you need to be absolutely at your peak," Anastopoulos said.

"The level is so high, the race days are so hard that you don’t need to be only a good sprinter. Physically, you need to be at your best and that’s why we’re trying to do this block of camps and races."

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

The Greek coach has been hard at work sculpting Cavendish's programme for this year, which will include fewer races and more targeted training to see him able to tackle the Tour's mountainous route, but such plans were never in mind when Anastopoulos first agreed to join Astana Qazaqstan.

In fact, the 48-year-old had signed his contract with the Kazakh outfit under the impression that Cavendish would not be with the side in 2024.

'A brilliant coincidence to continue working with Cavendish'

As is widely known, Cavendish had initially announced he would retire at the end of the 2023 campaign in a teary-eyed press conference at the Giro d'Italia. They were happy tears, for Cavendish was to leave cycling whilst still in love with the sport. The Tour was to be Cavendish's last, and on the Manxman's recommendation, Anastopoulos began talks with Astana for a winter transfer.

"The funny thing is that when Alexander [Vinokourov] approached me at the beginning of last July, it was before the Tour de France, we already knew that Mark was going to do his last Tour de France. So when he asked me to join the team and try to change the structure of the team, because he was not satisfied with the performance of the team, I just took the challenge," Anastopoulos told GCN.

"I thought, ‘ok, Mark has been there so it’s a nice team with good people and a good atmosphere.’"

As history will now tell, Cavendish ultimately crashed out of that Tour de France with a broken collarbone and subsequently decided to ride on for one more year. The faith, support and belief in Cavendish shown by his Astana Qazaqstan team proved decisive in the Manxman's retirement postponement, and Anastopoulos is delighted to be reunited with the sprinter after a season spent apart in 2023.

Read more: 'Knowing I was valued is biggest factor in not retiring' says Mark Cavendish

"With the crash of Mark and the discussion about continuing with the team, he finally decided to continue and I was already signed with the team, so that was a brilliant coincidence, to continue working together."

Anastopoulos quick to shake things up at Astana Qazaqstan

Brought into the Astana Qazaqstan ranks as the team's new Head of Performance, the four-time Greek national champion will of course have more than Cavendish to think about in 2024, and Anastopoulos has already been keen to implement swift changes for the struggling WorldTeam.

Astana Qazaqstan ended 2023 a measly 20th place in the UCI's team rankings and will be desperate to climb their way back up the table this season, to alleviate any concerns over WorldTour relegation as suffered by Lotto Dstny and Israel-Premier Tech in recent years.

Renshaw has already set his targets on the team jumping into the "top 10-15 teams in the WorldTour", whilst Anastopoulos sees their upcoming Colombia trip as the first step in a list of changes that will see the Kazakh side improve this year.

Read more: Renshaw sees plenty of potential winners in Astana Qazaqstan's squad for next season

An affirmative "yes" was Anastopoulos' response when GCN asked if structural changes within the Astana Qazaqstan organisation had already been implemented in advance of the new year.

"We'll make some changes in the training, preparation for the races and on the race programme - we focus now more on training camps. We will do fewer races than last year. Also, the altitude camp that we're going to do now in Colombia is the first time that the team goes so far away, to do a camp like this.

"All those small things were just part of the whole process of stepping up as a whole team."

Anastopoulos and the Astana Qazaqstan backroom staff will be hoping that the little changes add up for the side in 2024. Whether it be fewer races for stars like Alexey Lutsenko or Greek retreats for the history-making Cavendish, the team will be eager to improve on their 2023 tally of just one WorldTour victory.

Already the record holder of 34 Tour de France stage wins alongside the legendary Eddy Merckx, Cavendish will be seeking to become the outright custodian at this summer's Tour. But whilst Anastopoulos remains confident that the sprinter can pull off what many once thought to be impossible, the Greek's hopes will indeed spread beyond Cavendish and to the rest of his new team in 2024.

"I truly believe he can win," Anastopoulos said of Cavendish. "But that’s also what I said in 2021 before he started the Tour, so if everything goes well, I think he’s capable of winning.

"As a team, we want to win more races, to step up on the rankings - because this year was a really bad year for Astana - and I want to see every single rider performing better than last year. Because if at the end of the season, we have this result, I will be extremely happy."

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