Take a deep sigh of relief, because it’s finally over. Those blurred videos of a Cav-like figure zooming by on Spanish roads, creepy paparazzi photos of him loading a bike into the back of a team car, cryptic Tweets and speculative news articles (guilty), can all be put to rest. Mark Cavendish has finally, thank goodness, officially announced he will be riding for Astana Qazaqstan in 2023.
The road to get here has been long. It’s one with so many twists and turns, from a near-confirmed signing to the now-defunct B&B Hotels team, to rumours about a contract with Human Powered Health or the new Q36.5 Team, to the 2023 Astana Qazaqstan team photo without Cavendish himself in it at the end of last year, to the official team announcement finally coming incredibly close to the season starting. We might need a lie down.
But although it has been easy to get caught up in the drama and intrigue surrounding Mark Cavendish’s transfer to Astana, the signing of the contract is really only the very first step in the agreement between the two parties – the tricky part is still to come. The Kazakh team now needs to get its return on the likely hefty investment it has put into bringing Cavendish to the outfit. The picture of him winning that elusive 35th Tour de France stage and bettering Eddy Merckx’s record in an Astana jersey is likely one that team manager Alexander Vinokourov dreams of when he closes his eyes at night, but it’s not going to be an easy road to get there.
With sprightly young talent like Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal - Quick-Step) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) – to name just a few – hungry for big wins, it’s only getting harder each year to be the best sprinter in the world. Cavendish himself proved with the four stage wins he got at the 2021 Tour de France how important a good lead-out train is, and said how crucial it was to have the full belief of his then team, Deceuninck - Quick-Step, behind him. Astana have given Cav a snazzy new national champions jersey, and managed to fork out the budget to meet his demands, but can they create the team around the Manxman that he’ll need to win bike races?
From the perspective of Astana Qazaqstan, Cavendish could be their saviour in a period of crisis. The team fired their talented Colombian climber, Miguel Ángel López, at the end of 2022 due to what the team claimed was the discovery of “new elements” showing López's “probable connection” with Dr Marcos Maynar – something López denies. Before that, Italian legend Vincenzo Nibali retired at the end of last season after an illustrious career, so Astana Qazaqstan were left somewhat directionless with no true GC contender to support. The arrival of Cavendish has given the squad a focal point; to win Tour de France sprint stages.
Image: Astana Qazaqstan
Cavendish certainly can’t do this alone, and that leads us to look at the team around him for signs of Astana Qazaqstan’s plan to make victories in La Grande Boucle a reality. It was recently announced that Dutch sprinter Cees Bol, who was also supposed to sign with B&B Hotels originally, will be joining Cavendish at Astana and the 27-year-old will serve as the perfect final lead-out man for Cavendish. He’s won a stage of Paris-Nice and finished in the top-three at Tour de France stages in the past, so Bol is a rider who can pack a punch.
But a one-man lead out isn't normally enough to make the difference, so what about the riders at Astana currently? Can they do the job for Cavendish?
One of the standout riders on the team’s roster as a key candidate for the lead-out train is Italian rider Davide Martinelli. Now in his fourth year with Astana Qazaqstan, the 27-year-old also spent four years on Quick-Step in its various iterations. There, he worked with talented Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria as a part of his lead out train, so he has experience guiding the best of the best to victory.
Next, new to Astana for 2023, is Estonian rider Martin Laas. He joins the team after getting some impressive results in bunch sprints while part of Bora-Hansgrohe, including victories in the Arctic Race of Norway and the Tour of Estonia. Laas is a rider who has regularly exhibited impressive raw power, but has sometimes struggled to translate that into victory himself. These could be the perfect ingredients for a good lead-out rider who can put the watts down and then leave it to someone else to finish off the job.
Cavendish wins stage four of the Tour de France 2021 to Fougéres (Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
Moving on to those who could be put to use earlier in the train, experienced rider Manuele Boaro has been part of Astana since 2019 and has been riding in the professional peloton for over a decade. In that time, he’s secured victories in the Tour of Croatia and the Tour of Denmark and has shown strong time trialling abilities. Boaro has a combination of explosive speed and the ability to produce sustained efforts which could make him an important part of the lead-out train for Astana, especially given his experience in the bunch. Another rider with similar abilities to Boaro is his fellow Italian Gianni Moscon. Although he’s suffered with injury and health problems in recent seasons, at his best, Moscon has an impressive engine which will be perfect for reeling back breakaways or pulling a long stint on the front of the bunch before the sprint comes to crunch time.
Finally, Gleb Syritsa is a 22-year-old Russian rider who joined Astana as a stagiaire in 2022 and went on to sign a three-year contract with the team. He’s proven his sprinting abilities with a stage win in the Tour de Langkawi and multiple podium finishes over the last season. Not only could Syritsa be an asset in the lead-out train for Cavendish, he could also learn a lot from the Manx Missile and will be able to develop his career alongside him this season.
So, they aren’t a bunch of big-name riders who you immediately think of when it comes to a dream lead-out train, but could there be some untapped potential in Astana’s squad? Could this combination actually create the magic, fairytale ending to Cavendish’s career that he dreams of? Opportunities at the Tour de France in 2023 will come as early as stage three on a rolling stage to Bayonne, then potentially again on stage four to Nogaro. On stage seven, the Tour de France will return to Bordeaux, where Cavendish won his 14th stage win back in 2010. Familiar roads, happy memories – could that be the day that he makes history?
Cavendish’s move to Astana Qazaqstan isn’t one we might have expected when his contract with Quick-Step - Alpha Vinyl ended last year, but it’s not out of the question for the 37-year-old to end his career on a high here. His lead-out train could come together and be a success, and it could help Cav get the 35th stage win that he’s hoping for.
Equally, the whole thing could go wrong. The late signing, the lack of time to dial in the lead-out, the new equipment and management system will all take some getting used to, and maybe it won’t work out. But if there’s one thing that the last couple of years have taught us, it is never to count Mark Cavendish out. Like he has written in his Instagram bio, and like he said when he won his 32nd Tour stage in 2021 after a five year wait: “always believe.”
Cover image: Cavendish at the 2022 Giro d'Italia (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)