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Team triumphs

Cavendish win built on brilliant teamwork, says Richard Moore

Features Posted 26th September 2011 view comments

In Copenhagen 2011 there could be heard an echo of Palma in 2007.

Four years ago, at the track cycling world championships, the British team topped the medals table. Now, at the equivalent point of the current Olympic 'cycle,' the British team has achieved the same on the road.

Cavendish celebrates his win

Cavendish celebrates his win

The climax, of course, was Mark Cavendish's win in the men's road race on Sunday, at the end of the strongest collective performance of any British cycling team, ever. Overall, it left Britain on top of the medals table, with a second gold medal going to Lucy Garner in the junior women's road race.

I would argue that the performance in Copenhagen, though it yielded fewer medals and titles than Palma, is more significant - and maybe even more impressive than what was achieved at the Beijing Olympics.

It's a virtuous circle. Cavendish's teammates are more willing to work for him because they know he won't let them down. At the same time, the more work they do, the greater Cavendish feels the responsibility to win, and the greater the likelihood of him winning.

Richard Moore
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Let me explain. There are fewer titles to be won on the road, and they are fought over by more nations. Back in 2007 the track success was hailed as a triumph, but with a nagging sense that the British team were distorting the competition a little - they appeared to be so much better-funded and resourced than any other team.

Poor relations

In cycling terms, track racing is a poor relation, the road represents the holy grail, and it has always seemed suitably out of reach. The performance on Sunday, when the British team controlled the men's road race from start to finish, was unimaginable as recently as four years ago.

Still, there could be parallels to draw between Palma and Copenhagen. The 2007 track world championships foreshadowed the Beijing Olympics, where Britain's track cyclists won seven of the ten gold medals available. And so the obvious question to ask is: will Copenhagen anticipate London in 2012?

Perhaps, but the caveat is that Britain could win all the road events and the impact - as far as the public is concerned - could still be less than in Beijing. That owes to simple arithmetic: there are only four gold medals to win on the road.

But there are other factors that could count against a repeat of Copenhagen. One, as Cavendish said immediately after winning, is that he'll have fewer teammates in London. Five-man teams contest the Olympic road race; he had seven to help him in Copenhagen.

And help him they did, all marshalled by on-the-road captain David Millar. Yet Millar will be missing in London. After serving a doping ban he is ineligible for the British team.

Selfless Wiggins

All seven of Cavendish's teammates did an extraordinary job, but Bradley Wiggins deserves special mention. The time trial silver-medallist dragged the bunch around the final lap, mopping up the break and discouraging fresh attacks.

It was a phenomenal ride, one that only three or four riders in the world would even be capable of. But whether Wiggins will be able or willing to perform so selflessly in London is open to question. For one thing, he might be 'fresh' from the Tour de France, which finishes six days earlier. For another, his main focus in London might be on the time trial, which is held just four days after the road race.

Then again, for all that the British team performance - planned in intricate detail by Cavendish's mentor and Team Sky's race coach, Rod Ellingworth - was an important factor in the victory, it would be remiss to overlook the contribution of the main man: Cavendish.

In the final 300 metres Cavendish seemed swamped; he looked to have too much to do. Yet he steered through the bodies (all those madison training drills on the track under the eye of Ellingworth have paid off) to emerge at the front and, 100 metres from the line, the outcome was not in doubt.

It is his ability to deliver when the expectation and pressure is at its highest that sets Cavendish apart. While that kind of pressure would crack many sportsmen, he is oblivious. In fact, it isn't pressure he seems to feel - it's responsibility. He regards it as his duty to finish off all the work of his team.

Sitting at the back of a line of teammates - not as simple as he makes it look, by the way - and witnessing the effort and sacrifice they put into a six-hour race seems to have the effect of motivating Cavendish, but also, more importantly, of imbuing in him a sense that he has to win - that to fail to win is to let those teammates down.

It's a virtuous circle. Cavendish's teammates are more willing to work for him because they know he won't let them down. At the same time, the more work they do, the greater Cavendish feels the responsibility to win, and the greater the likelihood of him winning.

An example could be seen in Copenhagen. Wiggins' ride on the final lap was unbelievable. Cavendish really might not have won without that. But Wiggins perhaps couldn't have ridden out of his skin had he not had such confidence in Cavendish's ability to finish the job off.

Cavendish has often talked of his team as being like a machine, comprising eight or nine parts of equal importance - of which he is merely the final part.

Which is true, to a point. But let's be honest: it wouldn't work at all without its key part. And the key part is Cavendish.

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