After the B&B Hotels team completely collapsed late in this off-season, Mark Cavendish was left with few options in his search for a new team. Unexpectedly, the Manx Missile has joined Astana Qazaqstan, a team which, up until a few weeks ago did not have have space left on its roster. However after sacking Miguel Angel Lopez a roster spot opened up as well as his presumedly handsome salary off their books for 2023 too. Good news for Cavendish’ wallet as well as for fans hoping to see him back at the Tour de France. A big question mark is how will he actually fare at Astana, a team which has historically not focussed on sprinting.
A Shallow Sprint History
Looking through Astana’s history, there has not been a sprinter who has won multiple World Tour sprints for them in a single season. Andrea Guardiani (2013-2016) might be the best pure sprinter in Astana’s history, winning 19 races across that period but with only a single World-Tour sprint victory (Eneco Tour 2014 Stage 1). Guardini was a Tour de Langkawi specialist, as he won 11 stages there for Astana and 24 total Langkawi sprints in his career. Allan Davis (2010), Magnus Cort (2018-2019), Davide Ballerini (2019) and Alex Aranburu (2020-2021) might be other notable sprinters but they were better from reduced bunches rather than pure sprints, particularly Cort and Aranburu.
In 2023 Cavendish will not be the only sprinter on Astana as the team also signed the fast Estonian Martin Laas who previously rode for Bora-Hansgrohe. Russian Gleb Syritsa is another youngster joining the team, the 22 year old has a fast finishing kick, winning Tour de Langkawi Stage 1 and placing second in Tour de Slovaquie Stage 1 only behind Quick-Step’s Ethan Vernon. He dominating the Spanish amateur race circuit earlier in the year, winning eight races on parcours that are generally not suited to burly sprinters.
Who will lead-out Cavendish?
Astana do not have much sprinting experience at WorldTour level, where the competition is always high and without a competent train it is hard to deliver sprinter in a good position. This level of competition will be at an even higher level of intensity in the Tour de France 2023, where Alpecin-Deceuninck, BikeExchange, Groupama FDJ and Soudal-Quickstep will likely send their top sprinters with dedicated and experienced lead-out trains. The last man role is particularly important in WorldTour sprints, as indicated by Alpecin picking up veteran Roman Sinkeldam to lead-out Philipsen after Jonas Rickaert returns from injury.
Another rider burned by the B&B collapse is DSM’s Cees Bol, who is rumoured to join Astana presumably as a lead-out man for Cavendish. After a Spring victory against Pedersen and Bennett in Paris-Nice Stage 2 2021, it looked like the big Dutchman might have put it all together however he has remained very inconsistent. He usually has one great sprint per season, the last being his victory in Tour of Britain Stage 2, his only podium finish in 2022. This year he was already moved into a partial lead-out role by DSM, including in the Giro d’Italia where he was the last lead-out man for his DSM teammate Alberto Dainese. The Italian was able to win Stage 11 against Gaviria, Demare, Cavendish, Ewan, Bauhaus and other good sprinters however Bol did not really feature in the last 500 metres.
Bol is a huge rider (194 cm) and seems to be their best option as a last lead-out man with his huge drafting benefit and experience in Tour de France sprints – three participations and multiple sprint top 10s . Despite his stature, he has more endurance than Sam Bennett type sprinters and can get over hills as he proved in Tour de Suisse Stage 3 and Tour of Britain Stage 2 in 2022.
Martin Laas and Gleb Syritsa are the other obvious options for the sprint train. Laas is quite small for a lead-out man being only 176 centimetres tall, however some famous lead-outs like Richeze are also on the smaller side. Syritsa is huge, standing at 189 cm and 85 kg according to PCS. He definitely has huge watts under his bonnet as he finished second in the gruelling Arctic Race of Norway Stage 1 uphill sprint, losing only to star neo-pro Axel Zingle.
Syritsa is a big talent capable of getting results for himself but adding him into Cavendish’ train as second last man for major races seems logical. It may be a big step down from Cavendish’ Tour de France 2021 pairing of Morkov and Ballerini but Bol and Syritsa might be better than he expected at Astana.
Who can set up the Cavendish – Bol – Syritsa trio? It will be hard to compete against the firepower of the top sprint teams, who have riders like Kasper Asgreen, Ryan Mullen and Miles Scotson putting their final three riders into position in the last two kilometres. When you do not have the firepower then setting up a conventional sprint train is usually not the best option. A weak train that cannot perform in the last kilometre and blows up too early like Israel Start-Up Nation often did in the last two years is the worst case possible.
Bol and Syritsa guarding and positioning Cavendish on the strongest competitor’s lead-out train might not be the worst case scenario. Usually the fourth and fifth man in the train are pursuit style riders who can do 500 watts in the final five kilometres. Gianni Moscon in 2022 was horrendous but with peak shape he would be a good option to at least set up the final trio. U23 World Champion Yevgeniy Fedorov (193cm, 80kg) should be powerful and big enough for the job too if he can handle the chaos of the finale of a WorldTour sprint. There are not many other 72kg+ guys on Astana. Dmitriy Gruzdev, Andrey Zeits, Luis Leon Sanchez all are above 72kg and might be options but realistically they will lack the firepower and positioning to fulfil this role in the Tour de France. Lutsenko is heavy for a GC rider and might be around 70kg but he likely will focus on GC and saving energy for mountain stages. Samuele Battistella is listed at 67 kg on PCS, climbs really well and is not bad from bunch sprints. Perhaps he can fulfil the Alaphilippe style role that he successfully played for Cavendish before Asgreen in the train in the Tour de France 2021.
Cavendish achieving his record 35th win would be a huge success for the team, with neither the team nor the rider likely being in each other’s plans even a month ago. The Tour de France parcours in 2023 is catered towards the bunch sprinters and, despite being snubbed for the Tour in 2022, Cavendish remained at a very high level this year. Even so, Astana probably will not send a full sprint team to the Tour de France as the team is full of climbers and will also want Lutsenko to succeed in the general classification. Bol, Syritsa, Moscon, Fedorov, Leon Sanchez, Lutsenko and Zeits would be a good team to balance those ambitions. With Lopez out the door and Nibali retiring, Astana had to try something to lift the level of the team after a dismal 2022. Whether Cavendish after two resurgent years at Quickstep is that solution remains to be seen, with his performance at Bahrain-Mclaren a not too distant memory of the past.
Kārlis Ozols (@CyclingGraphs)