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Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 13:51 UK

Cavendish ready to step up

Team Columbia rider Mark Cavendish
Cavendish also has one eye on a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics

By Alex Murray

This year's Tour de France, which starts on Saturday, could see a sprinter from the Isle of Man take over from Chris Boardman as the most recognisable name in British road cycling.

Mark Cavendish is making the sport sit up and take notice of his talent with a series of electrifying results this season.

And it's entirely possible the 23-year-old could become the first Briton since 2002 to win the opening stage of the world's most famous cycling race and the first from the United Kingdom since David Millar in 2000 to claim the coveted yellow jersey.

Cavendish is a sprinter for whom a day's racing comes down to the last few seconds of a stage - where a rider must hold his nerve and position as bikes and bodies bang together at speeds in excess of 40mph.

It's not a place for those lacking in self-belief, something "Cav" has in abundance, a trait sometimes taken for arrogance.

After his two stage wins at this year's Giro d'Italia, his rivals know it's not just confidence he has but raw speed. The Italian rider Daniele Bennati acknowledged just how fast Cavendish was, saying "he's the fastest in the world in the last 50m of a sprint".

BBC Sport's Peter Slater

Cavendish, who rides for Team Columbia, recently said that he believes he is the quickest over the last 100m, down from the 200m he claimed in an interview last year.

His interviews are littered with similar claims of his ability to win races, something he's been doing consistently since turning pro with T-Mobile in 2007 following a spell with them as a "stagiaire" and with Sparkasse, a respected development team in Germany.

His tally of 11 wins in his debut season matched that of the great Alessandro Petacchi, repaying the belief shown in him by British Cycling and his mentor Rod Ellingworth, and he's since been seen going past the likes of Australia's Robbie McEwen and German Erik Zabel, arguably the most consistent sprinters of the last 10 years.

Should Cavendish be able to win a stage in the opening week of Le Tour, he could make the more difficult transition from the favourite of the cycling press to establishing himself in the sporting mainstream.

Being a sprinter could work in his favour as it means he can avoid comparisons to Robert Millar, the great climber who won the King of the Mountains crown in 1984, and Chris Boardman, the time triallist who wore the yellow jersey in the 1990s, who were the last two British cyclists to establish themselves in the common consciousness.

We do not know yet whether he can develop into a contender in the one-day classic races like Tom Simpson, the rider whose legacy every British talent must labour under to some degree.

Former Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman
Boardman enjoyed yellow jersey success in the Tour

The Beijing Olympics are also on Cavendish's list of goals in the form of the Madison race, the single most thrilling spectacle of all the track events.

Cavendish has form in the event having taken World Championships with both of his likely partners, Bradley Wiggins in 2008 and Rob Hayles in 2005 when he was only meant to be getting experience at the top level.

If he hits the primetime, he's unlikely to be fazed should he be asked to appear on Strictly Come Dancing: Mark was quite the mover in ballroom dancing in his teens, which he did alongside his cycling and working in a bank.

Add in impish good looks and a mischievous humour that plays well when seen away from the pressurised atmosphere of race-day and it's not hard to see why Cavendish could cross into the mainstream.

It doesn't always translate in the heat of a race: his decision to pedal past the legendary Mario Cippolini with one leg at the Tour of California prologue initially infuriated "The Lion King" until Cavendish had a chance to explain that he was not being disrespectful.

He admits that it is really the Tour de France that motivates him, as that was the event he dreamed of competing in as a boy, but there is no doubt that the high profile afforded by Olympic glory can do no harm in making him a household name.

While the latter will build his profile at home, it is glory in the former that could see Cavendish become a familiar name on a global scale, just at a time when the sport has been looking for a name to represent the new era in cycling.

see also
Cavendish wins Romandie prologue
29 Apr 08 |  Cycling
Cavendish sprints to narrow win
16 Apr 08 |  Cycling
Cavendish outlines Tour ambition
15 May 07 |  Cycling

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