Come Saturday, is there really any point looking past the Manx Missile? Only if the 250-kilometre Olympic road race ends in something other than a mass sprint, believes Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

Call me decidedly unpatriotic (some may even say disloyal), but really, how does one look past Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Peter Sagan as the men most likely to take out the Olympic road race Saturday?

After what the world witnessed at the Tour de France, does Matthew Goss even stand a chance against this formidable trio?

Of course he does.

Goss, as his Orica-GreenEDGE sport director Matt White told me the previous Thursday in Bagnères-de-Luchon, four days from the end of the Tour, is one of those rare riders that exits a Grand Tour still in top shape.

'Can Gossy maintain his form a week after the Tour de France? And is his form still looking good, in your opinion?' I asked.

"Yeah, definitely. He handles the climbs a lot better than the normal sprinters. When you look where he finishes on the hard days… (although) he pushed pretty hard, there, at the end of the (second) week, in the pursuit of that green jersey.

"Besides Peter Sagan, there's no sprinter here who climbs as good as Gossy," said White. "So he doesn't need to go as deep on the mountain stages as Greipel or Cavendish, which makes the recovery a lot easier for next week. He's going to be in good shape, Saturday week."

I would agree with White, to an extent. But I don't think anyone can say Cavendish and Sagan came out of the Tour less strong than Goss. And remember, after the opening road stage to Seraing, Greipel chose to eschew the green jersey competition and in so doing, all other intermediate sprints, meaning right now, the German juggernaut would be feeling rather chipper, too.

For me, Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan were Even Stevens to win the Olympic road race – until the eighteenth stage of the Tour to Brive-la-Gaillarde, that is.

On a rolling day that contained four categorised climbs (albeit a Cat 3 and a troika of Cat 4's, the last 10 kilometres from the finish) some might've thought Cavendish, despite being some four kilos lighter than he was at the start of this year's Giro d'Italia, may not even be there to contest the finale.

In the team meeting that morning in Blagnac, however, the then twenty-one-time Tour stage winner told his teammates that with their help, he felt sure it could be twenty-two. "Brad (Wiggins) immediately said he'd work for me, and Chris Froome and Edvald (Boasson Hagen) said they'd help, too," he recalled.

It still blows my mind what Cav' did that day. I even told him so; that until then, the salle de presse were yet to issue a collective gasp, though such was the incredulity of the feat it was more like being severely winded by a Tyson-like sucker punch.

"I just used the slipstreams," he said. "I have used this technique to win twenty-two stages. It's a magic number – there's one more to go."

He got that, too. As I tweeted prior to the finish on the Champs-Élysées, number twenty-three was in the bag before the sprint had been contested.

"He has certainly improved his climbing, and if you look at all those contenders for the Olympic road race, there aren't many left really who you could say were in as good a shape as Mark... he certainly is the favourite," Wiggins said after he led out Cavendish on the stage to Brive-la-Gaillarde.

"He's the fastest man in the world, without doubt. He showed that he can go from 600 (metres) out – we just watched it – and he left them for dead, didn't he?"

The way I see it, the only question mark for Cavendish and Team GB is the former's ability to handle nine ascensions of the 2.5km Box Hill climb and the latter's ability, as a unit, to control proceedings as they did in Copenhagen last September, when Cav' won the Worlds.

"I was glad I was over there for the test event, but it's chalk and cheese to what's going to happen (on race day)," Stuart O'Grady told me last December.

"We only climbed Box Hill two times and already the field blew to pieces. Okay, it wasn't a Tour de France peloton, but it did give an indication of just how tough this race is going to be. Nines times around that circuit, it's extremely difficult, extremely technical… It's going to be a lot harder than everyone predicts."

Goss concurred with his road captain, believing the control element to be the decisive factor among those nations who come with a sprinter. "I honestly don't think we'll see any more than 25, 30 guys coming into the finish," he told me. "When each nation only has five riders, it's a lot harder to control the race.

"It's going to be a lot harder to bring back breakaways; to get groups organised. It's going to make the race completely different to a world championship. Not completely different," he qualified, "but a little bit different to a world championship, where you have a whole team control a race."

Regardless, Goss admitted the 250km parcours does suit his style – but it also suits the style of the aforementioned three and someone I've yet to mention till now: Edvald Boasson Hagen, the man who led Cavendish out to victory on the Champs-Élysées, and who, along with the Tasmanian, sits firmly in the second bracket of favourites.

There are also two other (perhaps ultimately inconsequential) concerns for Great Britain. Who will lead out Cavendish, and what is their Plan B?

While Wiggins has shown he can do it, he also told the London Telegraph earlier this year that, "I will approach the time trial with complete priority", meaning he'd rather save himself for the following Wednesday where he too is a favourite than bust a gut leading Cavendish out on The Mall.

David Millar then becomes the likely choice, though as the Manx Missile has shown time and time again and as Wiggins wittily once said, Cavendish can win "with a black bin bag on his head. He does not need much help. He is so fast."

As for a Plan B, the Poms do not have one, such is their confidence in Cav', as it was in Copenhagen. With Simon Gerrans, this is where I envisage the only scenario where Australia, depending on how things unfold, may have the upper hand. "Other teams, they're a bit more one-dimensional in their sprint group," White said.

Could one see another outcome like we did in Milan-San Remo?

Let's hope so. Because if not, there is only one conclusion, and that conclusion culminates with Cavendish.