Mark Cavendish and the Great Britain team finished the UCI Road World Championships on top of the cycling world. The fastest sprinter in the sport put the exclamation point on a week which showcased Britain’s strength in depth ahead of next year’s London Olympics. Cavendish brought home the second gold – and a table-topping sixth overall medal – for Britain after an exemplary team performance put the Isle of Man rider into position to complete the job with his customary finishing burst.
The elite men’s road race was run over a back-breaking 266km, including 17 laps of a 14km circuit which, though largely flat, featured a difficult ramp in the final 400 metres. Throughout the week, this had frequently produced hard-fought and chaotic sprints which no one team was able to fully control. The uphill finish simultaneously offered the benefit of momentum to anyone brave enough to launch a long sprint while severely punishing anyone who attacked too early and ran out of steam before the line.
Mark Cavendish celebrates victory in the elite men's road race in Copenhagen, bringing GB's medal haul to six (image courtesy of Graham Watson)
Britain forced to dig deep
The British team of Bradley Wiggins, David Millar, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Jeremy Hunt, Steve Cummings, Cavendish and Vuelta a España runner-up Chris Froome was arguably the strongest squad in the race. Their sole plan was to ensure that Cavendish was able to contest a bunch finish, in which his power and acceleration would make him the overwhelming favourite. Everyone else knew it too, from those whose interests also lay in setting up a sprint – Australia (for Matt Goss), Germany (André Greipel) and Norway (Edvald Boasson Hagen and defending champion Thor Hushovd) – and those who wanted anything but, such as Belgium (Philippe Gilbert), France (Thomas Voeckler) and Switzerland (Fabian Cancellara). Regardless of their preferred type of finish, all Cavendish’s rivals had the same objective: keep attacking the British team so that they would have neither the manpower nor the energy to set up a proper lead-out train.
An early seven-man break pulled out an advantage of eight minutes before a Britain-led peloton, with a little help from Germany, began to rein them in. A subsequent counter-attack swelled the lead group’s numbers to 11, and with five laps remaining they retained a minute’s advantage over the chasing pack. However, as the peloton allowed the break to retain a small advantage, France’s Anthony Roux launched a solo attack with two laps remaining in one final attempt for glory.
Wiggins put in a monster turn at the front to chase down the leaders
With Wiggins stationed on the front to maintain a fast-enough tempo to dissuade any major attacks, the race entered a brief quiet period until, with 19km to go, the familiar figure of France’s Thomas Voeckler – who led this year’s Tour de France for 11 days – leapt out of the pack, taking Belgium’s Klaas Lodewyck and Denmark’s Nicki Sörensen with him. The trio quickly caught and passed the exhausted Roux, and held an 18-second advantage at the bell for the final lap. They were joined by the Netherlands’ Johnny Hoogerland, but with Wiggins continuing to tap out a remorseless, punishing pace that lined out the peloton behind him, they were all eventually swept up, with Voeckler the last to succumb inside of 7km.
A couple of kilometres later Wiggins finally peeled off, having pulled on the front for nearly 20km, leaving Britain with just Stannard and Thomas to guide Cavendish to the finish. Stannard chose to back off, allowing the Australian train to take over at the front and tucking in just behind them. It was a wise move, allowing Britain to conserve their final lead-out for the last kilometre
Cavendish waits patiently before hitting the afterburners
As the peloton hurtled towards the final right-hander just inside the final kilometre the sprinters’ teams started to mass near the front, with the British trio placed well forward but hemmed in against the barriers. In the ensuing jostling for position, Cavendish lost Thomas’ wheel as another rider chopped in front of him, and he rounded the final corner in about tenth position.
Cavendish delivered when the chips were down (image courtesy of highroadsports.com)
With Stannard contributing at the front to hold station and ensure the pace remained high enough to prevent a dangerous concertina effect, Thomas allowed himself to drop back a few places to reconnect with Cavendish and bring him back up to sit on Goss’ wheel. As the lead-out men gradually fell away on the final rise, a gap on the right finally opened up for Cavendish with around 175 metres left and he immediately opened up his sprint to take advantage of it. It was perhaps 20-30 metres earlier than he would have ideally liked, but his acceleration took him past Goss and he was strong enough to keep the charging Australian behind him all the way to the line by a wheel’s width. In a photo finish Greipel, who started his sprint from too far back, was adjudged to have beaten Cancellara to the bronze medal by a whisker.
Cavendish punched the air in triumph as he crossed the line after a finish which must have been all the more satisfying for having been done the hard way, rather than being handed to him on a plate. There was no full-team lead-out as he has so often enjoyed with HTC-Highroad. Instead the team buried themselves one by one to ensure the bunch sprint he needed occurred. There was no Mark Renshaw to pilot him safely through the final 700 metres – although Stannard and Thomas played their roles perfectly in the closing 5km. In the final sprint he was on his own, with just his instinct, judgement and his confidence in his own ability to rely on. On a difficult finishing straight on which he was pinned into the barriers until the final 200 metres, he did not panic and made his move at the right moment. It was a masterclass in sprinting tactics that showed once and for all that he can still destroy a top-class field without a lead-out train.
It was an immense performance, and Cavendish sounded as if he could barely believe what he had done as he was interviewed immediately after the finish:
It was incredible, we took it on from start to finish. I can’t believe it. We knew three years ago when this course was announced – we put a plan together to put these best guys together. It’s been three years in the making and you just saw they rode incredibly. I’m just so proud.
He added that he had now fulfilled both his major ambitions for the year:
At the start of the season I said I had two goals: the green jersey and the rainbow stripes. Now I get to wear the rainbow bands for the next year.
And – a Cavendish trademark – he was both spontaneous and fulsome in his praise for his seven teammates, who had given everything to their single-minded cause and effectively ridden a 266km team time trial on his behalf:
The team all rode out of their skins today. It’s a shame they can’t wear the world champion’s jersey as well. I’ve won the jersey, but I just put the finishing touches to the mission.
20 career Tour de France stage victories in a sequence of four seasons when he has dominated the sprints in every major race he has entered. A 2011 which saw him take two stages at the Giro d’Italia, five more and the green jersey at the Tour de France, and has now culminated in the rainbow jersey. Cavendish is the first man in 30 years – and only the fifth ever – to win both the world championships and the green jersey at the Tour de France in the same season. He is also only Britain’s second senior male road race world champion (after Tom Simpson in 1965).
Mark Cavendish is indisputably the best in the world at what he does and has been for four consecutive years – the title ‘world champion’ is merely confirmation of what we already knew. If that isn’t worth a vote when it comes to BBC Sports Personality of the Year in December, I don’t know what is.
Chapeau, Cav. Chapeau, Great Britain team. Mission accomplished.
Winners, goodbyes and the ultimate ‘loser’
Overall, Britain topped the final medal table after putting a rider on the podium in six out of ten events, with the men’s and women’s teams each registering one medal of each colour. In addition to Cavendish, Lucy Garner claimed gold in the women’s junior road race. Bradley Wiggins (men’s time trial) and Elinor Barker (women’s junior time trial) were runners-up in their respective events. And Emma Pooley (women’s time trial) and Andrew Fenn (men’s under-23 road race) will return home with bronze medals.
In addition to Britain’s haul, it was also a good championships for France, Australia and Germany, who each won two events. France won both the under-23 and junior men’s road races with Arnaud Démare and Pierre-Henri Lecuisinier. Australia claimed gold in the men’s under-23 (Luke Durbridge) and women’s junior time trials (Jessica Allen). And Germany dominated the senior time trial events, with wins for Tony Martin and Judith Arndt.
The host nation Denmark also punched above their weight, finishing with one medal of each colour. Rasmus Quaade set the ball rolling with a silver in the men’s under-23 time trial, which was then followed by gold for Mads Würtz Schmidt in the junior equivalent and bronze for Christina Siggaard in the women’s junior road race.
Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad team is disbanding at the end of the year after accumulating over 500 wins in senior men’s and women’s races in just four years. And even though riders competed here under national rather than trade team colours – although in some cases the two were practically indistinguishable – the World Championships provided quite a swan-song for the sport’s ‘winningest’ team. HTC-Highroad riders claimed five medals, including golds in three of the four elite races: the men’s road race (Cavendish), and the men’s and women’s time trials (the German pair of Tony Martin and Judith Arndt). Furthermore, the other two places on the men’s road race podium below Cavendish were occupied by both a current HTC teammate (Matt Goss, silver) and a former one (André Greipel, bronze). It was one hell of a way to go out.
Finally, spare a thought also for Dutch rider Marianne Vos. One of the sport’s biggest stars, she won her only world championship road race in 2006, but has finished second in each of the last five years. There is no shame whatsoever in a World Championships record of one gold and five silvers, but Vos is the nearest thing women’s cycling has to Raymond Poulidor, the Frenchman who was five times runner-up at the Tour de France and never a winner, earning him the nickname of ‘Eternal Second’.
All the headlines tomorrow – in the UK press at least – will be about Mark Cavendish, but this was a hugely successful championships for the British team as a whole, and indeed for the sport as a whole. Well done, Copenhagen.
2011 Road World Championships results
Men’s road race:
1. Mark Cavendish (Britain), 2. Matt Goss (Australia), 3. André Greipel (Germany)
Men’s time trial:
1. Tony Martin (Germany), 2. Bradley Wiggins (Britain), 3. Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland)
Women’s road race:
1. Girogia Bronzini (Italy), 2. Marianne Vos (Netherlands), 3. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Germany)
Women’s time trial:
1. Judith Arndt (Germany), 2. Linda Vilumsen (New Zealand), 3.Emma Pooley (Britain)
Men’s under-23 road race:
1. Arnaud Démare (France), 2. Adrien Petit (France), 3. Andrew Fenn (Britain)
Men’s under-23 time trial:
1. Luke Durbridge (Australia), 2. Rasmus Quaade (Denmark), 3. Michael Hepburn (Australia)
Men’s junior road race:
1. Pierre-Henri Lecuisinier (France), 2. Martijn Degreve (Belgium), 3. Steven Lammertink (Netherlands)
Men’s junior time trial:
1. Mads Würtz Schmidt (Denmark), 2. James Oram (New Zealand), 3. David Edwards (Australia)
Women’s junior road race:
1. Lucy Garner (Great Britain), 2. Jessy Druyts (Belgium), 3. Christina Siggaard (Denmark)
Women’s junior time trial:
1. Jessica Allen (Australia), 2. Elinor Barker (Britain), 3. Mieke Kröger (Germany)
Link: 2011 UCI Road World Championships official website