World's fastest men

Al Hinds

cycling,andre greipel,GER,lotto-belisol,mark cavendish,GBR,omega pharma,peter sagan,SVK,cannondale,tirreno-adriatico
Three of the world's fastest... Mark Cavendish (centre) has the runs on the board but there's a young Slovak (Peter Sagan, left) and an on-form German (Andre Greipel, right) who are clipping at the Manxman's heels. (Getty Images)

Through some sort of mathematical miracle, and a few unseasonably cold days in Europe we've as yet been denied the contest we wait for every year, Greipel versus Cavendish. The powerful leadout driven style of the big German juxtaposed by the pure acceleration and famous double-kick of Cavendish.

After a nearly two month wait, the two sprinters will finally lock horns for the first time this season in Tirreno-Adriatico and reignite a long-time rivalry to decide just who is the fastest man on two wheels.

It's a head-to-head contests we were denied for much of last year because of the way Cavendish was used at Team Sky. The Brit was taken to the Tour de France as a joker in a team built around Bradley Wiggins and despite taking three stage wins, looked out of sorts for much of 2012.

Greipel meanwhile went from strength to strength, injected with exuberance from the capture of Greg Henderson from Team Sky, and a dialled-in leadout train comprising of Adam Hansen, Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg, recorded his best season to date.

But with Cavendish now back to his best under the stewardship of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, a team willing to give him total support to do what he does best, it's once again game on.

The Manxman's dominance in Qatar against a quality field; Edvald Boasson Hagen, Nacer Bouhanni, John Degenkolb and Elia Viviani, and Greipel's equally good start in Australia where he never looked like losing have built the anticipation nicely ahead of the "Race of the two Seas". The question now is to how they'll compare.

Battle of philosophies

The battle between the two sprinters is as much a battle of sprint philosophies as it is one of physical one-upmanship. Long a believer in the value of a leadout, something he helped define in his time at Highroad, Cavendish proved last year that he can perform without being escorted to 200 metres before the finish line.

At the Tour of Qatar, Cavendish went further in suggesting that the over-attention to leadout underplays the role of the sprinter. "People think a lead-out is what you need, but it's not," said Cavendish, "it's actually worse if there are more leadout teams who don't know what they are doing, it just becomes chaos."

Using Niki Terpstra as a pilot to position himself, Cavendish made do with a skeleton of a train, choosing on all four of the race's last stages that ended in sprints to navigate the peloton on his own, with alarming success. In Tirreno, Cavendish will have Gert Steegmans, Terpstra and Tony Martin to call on should he need them, but will he?

Greipel was as much a product of Highroad's tried and true leadout system as Cavendish, but unlike the Brit has retained much of the knowledge that made the black and yellow team so prolific. He'll have his leadout 'A-team' with him, and it's almost unthinkable that we won't see Lotto lining it out for the German on the race's two sprint stages, Stage 2 and 3.

Whether Cavendish will be overcome the Greipel train unassisted will be one of the key talking points of the race's first few days, and could dictate a trend for the rest of the year.

Challengers

I've talked a lot about Greipel-Cavendish, but there are two others that it would be careless to overlook. Peter Sagan, the rising Slovak powerhouse, and a resurgent Matt Goss.

Sagan is coming off a double-stage winning performance in the Tour of Oman, classics sucess at the GP Camaiore and could very easily have taken the Strade Bianche but for his team-mate Moreno Moser being up the road. One thing we learned from Sagan last year was that he can win a pure bunch sprint against top class opposition. The Tour de France's sixth stage put the myth that he couldn't to bed when he edged Greipel in a textbook dash to the line.

Add to that his versatility, his progression from last year and Sagan could well be the heir apparent to both Cavendish and Greipel, if not already getting to the point where he's surpassing them.

Goss, by Cavendish's own admission, is the one man he fears in the peloton if the Australian speedster is on his day. Goss struggled for consistency in 2012 after a highlight laden 2011 season, but a more disciplined approach to this year has him back on the right track. At the Tour Down Under he was competitive, but that was early in the season. If he can prove that he can win again on a regular basis he's got to be considered in the same breath as Greipel, Cavendish and Sagan.

Tirreno-Adriatico isn't the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France, Gent-Wevelgem or Paris-Roubaix, but it is taken seriously and sprinters never like to lose. With Milan-San Remo just around the corner it'll be an important marker for all of the big names and it will give an early indication as to who's got the edge this season.

Who do you think is quickest at the moment?

Tirreno-Adriatico begins March 6, Cycling Central will be providing daily highlights online.


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