Cavendish sprints to world victory
MARK Cavendish snared Great Britain's biggest road cycling success in nearly half a century when he blasted to victory in the World Road Race Championships - and such was his and the team's superiority that Cavendish even managed to make winning a chaotic 80-man, 70kmh dash for the line appear almost like a formality.
A few seconds after claiming Britain's first men's road-race gold - or indeed medal of any colour - since the late Tom Simpson back in 1965, Cavendish had his breath back. In fact, he barely seemed to have broken into a sweat. Yet the pressure to deliver on the 26-year-old Manxman on a course that seemed all but designed for a sprinter's success had been immense - and Great Britain's dominating performance on a fast, frantic 266km build-up raised the heat even further.
Tenth in line as the pack swung into the final corner before the 500 metre rise to the finish, Cavendish's position seemed too far back for even a rider with 74 professional sprint wins in just five years, not to mention this year's green jersey in the Tour de France, to deliver.
But deliver Cavendish did, with a perfectly timed acceleration scarily close to the barriers and, as he stormed to the finish, only Matt Goss's late move came near to threatening his chances.
Goss was a bare wheel length back and closing the gap when the the two blasted across the line but Cavendish was already out of reach, shouting himself hoarse in triumph at a landmark victory for himself and British cycling.
"There couldn't have been another result after the way my team-mates rode," Cavendish said afterwards. "And as long as three years ago, I knew straightaway it would be a great chance to bring the rainbow jersey back to Great Britain and we've been putting together a plan. That plan was about putting the right group of guys together and qualifying as many people as possible to come here to Copenhagen.
"So it's not just about the eight guys here today, but all the 14 World Tour professionals from Great Britain who worked so hard all year to get as many points as possible."
Having the favourite and such a strong team almost proved a double-edged weapon for Great Britain, as they were expected to control a race lasting almost six hours from the moment the pack wheeled out of Copenhagen.
However, with five more riders than for Australia's World Championship course last year - also won in a sprint - unlike in Melbourne, where he was inevitably isolated, Cavendish had all the protection he needed.
Shadowed by veteran fastman Jeremy Hunt in the middle of the bunch for much of the course, at the head of the pack Olympic gold medallist Geraint Thomas, Sky stalwart Steve Cummings and the experienced David Millar kept the pace high early on.
While a mid-course crash eliminated defending champion Thor Hushovd of Norway from the running, as Cavendish pointed out, it also cut back the number of nations collaborating with Britain in reeling in breakaway moves.
"When the crash happened we lost the support of Germany and there wasn't anybody else interested in helping," said Cavendish. "But the guys just kept an incredible tempo on the front so nobody could attack. [GB team-mate] Bradley Wiggins rode the whole last lap at the head of the pack and that was it."
If the finale was all about Cavendish's near-legendary capacity for a massive acceleration, the Briton played an expert waiting game throughout. Rarely out of the top 20 in order to avoid crashes, always a risk in a World Championships where many riders with little top-level experience are taking part, whenever Britain took the head of affairs Cavendish would be fourth or fifth in line, cautiously biding his time.
Never one to mince his words, Cavendish was scathing about those who had said the fastmen would founder on a course nowhere near as flat as in Belgium in 2002, the last time a full-scale bunch sprint had decided the World Championships.
"As per usual, some uneducated people said it was too hard for us pure sprinters," he said. "A sprint that's uphill is not a hill; it's a sprint, it was just like any other but 15km an hour slower."
Cavendish's latest success shortens the odds of victory in London 2012, where a gold in the road race, one of the first events of the Games to be completed, would be the perfect start for Great Britain.
But despite his victory in the Olympic test event in August, and despite his near-uncontested status as cycling's fastest sprinter, the Briton was wary about his chances of doing the double.
"There are only five of us there, it will be more difficult," Cavendish warned.
Come what may next summer, his latest triumph is the biggest of breakthroughs for British cycling. Thanks to Cavendish, though, the bar has now been raised.