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24 hours from the Tour de France

The title of the Gene Pitney song is actually 24 Hours from Tulsa, but what the hell? For both die-hard and occasional cycling fans, the biggest day in the sport’s cycling calendar is now just one day away. Tomorrow, in Liege in Belgium, the 2012 edition of the Tour de France begins. Three weeks of hell. Two wheels. One amazing race.

Will Sky’s Bradley Wiggins live up to his billing as the bookies’ favourite and become the first British rider to wear the coveted yellow jersey in Paris (let alone the first to finish on the Paris podium)? Or will Australia’s Cadel Evans be able to defend the title he won with such battling panache last July?

Will the combination of Mark Cavendish‘s preparations for the Olympic road race and Sky’s focus on Wiggins compromise his effectiveness as he seeks to add to his 20 Tour stage wins in defence of his green jersey? Or will we see a new sprint king crowned in Peter Sagan or perhaps Andre Greipel, Matt Goss or Mark Renshaw, all former teammates of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad?

Who will delight us with their daring attacks on the steep climbs and equally precipitous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees? And who will provide us with the drama and romance which featured protagonists such as French media darling Thomas Voeckler and Johnny ‘Barbed Wire’ Hoogerland?

In previous years I have provided stage-by-stage recaps and analysis here. However, all cycling coverage has now transferred over to our new dedicated site velovoices.com, where you will find full previews, daily recaps, stats and analysis throughout the next three weeks. Just click on the banner above and come and join us!

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Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Vuelta a España preview

The 66th edition of the Vuelta a España, the last of cycling’s three Grand Tours, gets under way in Benidorm on Saturday and concludes three weeks later with its traditional finish in the centre of Madrid. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali returns in search of a second Vuelta victory against a field packed full of big names, including two-time winner Denis Menchov.

The route

Like last year, this year’s route is designed with climbers in mind, with six summit finishes and a number of other difficult ascents. It is also designed to throw challenges at the riders right from the start, with the first high summit finish coming as early as the fourth day and several other late climbs scattered throughout the first week ready to catch the unprepared.

Unusually the race does not venture into either the Pyrenees or Catalunya this year, although it does make a return to the Basque country after a 33-year absence. In total, the race features ten mountain stages – including six summit finishes – and nine flat stages, with just two time trials (one team, one individual) which bookend a punishing ten-day opening stint which will most likely see the effective elimination of several contenders before the first rest day.

This race starts with a short 16km team time trial around Benidorm, and is then followed by ‘flat’ stages on five of the next six days. However, only stages two and seven are traditional sprinters’ days. Stages three and six each feature categorised climbs in the final 20km which will make life difficult for pure speedsters such as Mark Cavendish, while stage five finishes on the uncategorised but murderous ascent of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where long-time overall leader Igor Antón won last year.

Stage four sees the first – and highest – of the six summit finishes, at the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Andalucia, with the line at 2,112 metres. This climb was last visited in 2008, where David Moncoutié won en route to his first of three consecutive King of the Mountains titles. Coming so early in the race, one or more of the general classification contenders could easily lose big chunks of time here.

Stage 4 profile

After the sprinters have had their day, the race takes a distinctly uphill turn. A rolling eighth stage ends with a short, sharp shock at the finish in San Lorenzo, where the punishing final climb features ramps of up to 28% in gradient. Stage nine is a more traditional high mountain stage, with a flat run to the 1,970-metre high Sierra de Bejar. A tricky individual time trial on an up-then-down 47km course in Salamanca will provide a stern challenge for tired legs before the peloton is afforded a pause for breath at the end of ten gruelling days.

After the long opening stint, the middle ‘week’ of the race is just five days long, but includes a decisive sequence of four mountain stages and three summit finishes. Stage 11 takes the race back to Galicia for the first time since 2007 and concludes with the 30-kilometre climb of La Manzaneda, which is new to the Vuelta. After an ordinary transition day – the sprinters’ only opportunity between stages seven and 16 – the riders will spend one final day in Galicia which features two first-category climbs but a benign 50-kilometre run to the finish in Ponferrada.

The next two days, however, will most likely mould the final general classification into shape. Stages 14 and 15 will be painful for everyone, with each featuring a second and first-category climb before hors catégorie summit finishes at Lagos di Somiedo (a Vuelta debutant) and Anglirú. The latter is a beast of a climb – regarded by many as the toughest in Spain – which features a savage section between six and 12km averaging 13.8% (kilometre 11 alone is an eye-watering 17.5%). It is more than a match for anything the Giro or Tour have to offer, and with the second rest day following immediately after it is likely to prove to be the key battleground on which the race is won and lost.

Stage 15 profile

The closing stretch, while hardly straightforward, lacks an obvious headline-grabbing profile. Stage 17 finishes with the HC climb of Peña Cabarga, on the approach to which Antón crashed out of the race lead last year, while stage 19 sees the Vuelta return to the Basque region after a 33-year absence with a stage finish in Bilbao. The penultimate stage includes two first-category climbs, but these will be negated by a flat run-in of nearly 50 kilometres. And the final stage, of course, is the usual processional affair with the sprinters taking centre stage as the peloton completes several circuits of Madrid city centre.

The men to watch

Nibali returns to defend last year's win

This year’s Vuelta can boast arguably its strongest line-up in several years, with the ranks of GC contenders swelled by several top riders who were forced out of the Tour de France early on.

2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) is back to defend his title, and will face a strong Spanish contingent led by Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who crashed while leading last year’s race on stage 14, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Antón had raced sparingly this year but won on the Zoncolan at the Giro, while Rodríguez finished fifth in Italy and took strong second places at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne behind Philippe Gilbert, who has been unbeatable in the hilly classics this year.

Denis Menchov opted for the Giro-Vuelta combination when his Geox-TMC team did not receive an invite to the Tour. The 2005 and 2007 champion has raced a light programme this year, but finished a useful (if somewhat anonymous) eighth at the Giro. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) was second behind Alberto Contador at the Giro and has been in good form all season, but has yet to finish in the top ten in Spain.

All of the above had always intended to ride the Vuelta, but the list of genuine contenders is swelled by the presence of Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and the RadioShack pair of Janez Brajkovič and Andreas Klöden. All started the Tour in excellent form, but none finished it after a succession of crashes. Their current condition is uncertain, but each is capable of challenging for a podium position.

Will we see more of this from Cav over the next three weeks? (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Despite the distinctly hilly finishes to a number of the flat stages, the world’s best sprinters are also well represented here. In their farewell Grand Tour before the team’s dissolution, HTC-Highroad will feature a three-pronged sprint attack. Mark Cavendish will look to add to his two Giro and five individual Tour stages in defending his 2010 points classification victory. Matt Goss – winner of Milan-San Remo – will come to the fore on the hillier finishes. And 22-year old John Degenkolb, twice a winner at this year’s Dauphiné, will be an effective plan B should either of his more senior teammates falter. The team will also be favoured to repeat last year’s victory in the team time trial, which could put Cavendish in the overall leader’s red jersey for the first two or three days.

Cavendish will face plenty of competition though. The Garmin-Cervélo squad of Tyler Farrar won the Tour’s team time trial and the American (a three-time winner at the Vuelta) also took his first individual stage in France this year. J J Haedo has run Cavendish close in the past and will be free of the need to support absent Saxo Bank-Sungard leader Contador. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) won all four bunch sprints at the recent Tour of Poland. And the powerful Peter Sagan (Liquigas) is also a notable threat, although he is more of a direct rival for Goss on the lumpy finishes which require strength as well as speed. Similarly, the strength and experience of Óscar Freire should not be underestimated.

Cancellara will be the hot favourite for the stage 10 ITT

In the mountains classification, David Moncoutié (Cofidis) returns to target a fourth consecutive win but will face stiff competition from the GC contenders and any of a dozen or more Spanish climbers. Fabian Cancellara will be expected to top the time sheets in the individual time trial, although his arrival in Spain has been delayed after he was hospitalised by a bee sting.

Antón is the bookies’ favourite (ahead of Nibali) to make up for last year’s disappointment and claim his maiden Grand Tour win. Although I think any of the top five or six contenders could win a closely-contested race I find it hard to disagree with the odds-makers, not least when you look at the strength of the Euskaltel team, which is packed full of top climbing talent.

The sprinters’ and mountains classification are even more open. Cavendish may well win the most stages, but given the lumpy nature of many of the stages he may struggle to match the consistency of strong men such as Sagan. Will Moncoutié make it four in a row? At 36, this may prove to be a year too far, although his legs should be fresh having ridden a relatively light programme in 2011 including a fairly minimalist effort at the Tour, which he appeared to use more as a tune-up for this race.

So there you have it. A mouth-watering line-up of talent and a course which will remorselessly seek out any weakness in the riders. The Vuelta may be the youngest and the least prestigious of the three Grand Tours, but it is a thrilling race which never fails to deliver incredible drama. Miss it at your peril.

The 2011 Vuelta a España begins in Benidorm on Saturday and concludes in Madrid on Sunday 11th September. I will be writing occasional posts reviewing key stages and relevant topics during the race.

Video walk-through

Link: Vuelta a España official website

HTC-Highroad reaches the end of the road

It is an unthinkable scenario in any other sport. Can you imagine Ferrari pulling out of Formula 1? Or Manchester United folding? Or the NFL starting next season without its reigning Super Bowl champion, the Green Bay Packers? Well, it is happening in cycling with the announcement that HTC-Highroad, currently the most successful team (in terms of race wins) in professional cycling, will cease to exist at the end of the 2011 season due to a failure to find a suitable sponsor.

Let me just state that again: the most successful and high-profile team in the sport – and one which is run on a middling budget – cannot find the sponsor(s) it needs to continue.

This is the team which, in just under four years, has won more races (a staggering 484) than any other squad, including 54 stages at cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. This is the team which boasts not only the fastest sprinter in the world, Mark Cavendish, but a world-class roster of sprint talent which includes Australians Matt Goss (the winner of the Milan-San Remo classic this spring) and Mark Renshaw (widely acknowledged as the best lead-out man in the business), not to mention up-and-coming German youngster John Degenkolb (winner of two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné), who has stepped into the shoes vacated by his departed countryman André Greipel (now with Omega Pharma-Lotto). Fellow German Tony Martin is a world-class time-trialist – arguably the one man world champion Fabian Cancellara most fears against the clock – and Tejay Van Garderen is one of the most promising prospects of the new generation of American riders. Even stacked up against much better funded teams such as Sky, BMC and Leopard-Trek, this is a squad equal to any other in the sport.

Who is to blame?

The team is almost inextricably associated with its star sprinter Cavendish (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

However, the team is most closely identified with Cavendish, around whom the team has been built when it comes to the biggest race on the cycling calendar, the Tour de France. In those four years, Cav has delivered an astonishing 20 stage victories at the Tour, including five and the green jersey last month. The rest of the team has accounted for just two wins in that period (Marcus Burghardt in 2008 and Martin in this year’s time trial).

Cavendish has unwittingly had a pivotal role in the difficulties team owner Bob Stapleton has had in finding a new sponsor. Out of contract at the end of this year and having been originally signed on the cheap, he had previously made his dissatisfaction known at not being awarded a new deal commensurate with the success he had brought to the team. It has been an open secret that he would be leaving the team at the end of the year, a fact he all but confirmed in a BBC TV interview this week. With the team’s biggest draw on his way out and no big-name replacement in the pipeline, this can only have hindered Stapleton’s efforts.

However, Stapleton himself refused to lay the blame at Cavendish’s door:

It was a chicken and egg situation. We are very proud of the success he has had, and if we could have secured funding in a timely manner we would have had a lot fewer problems in general. It was not a defining factor in the search for a sponsor.

Stapleton's search for new sponsors proved unsuccessful (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

It would be unfair to blame the Manxman. In the post-Lance Armstrong era, he is arguably the sport’s biggest and most bankable star. Alberto Contador may have won six Grand Tours, but he is uncomfortable with the media, rarely conducts interviews in English and has the small matter of a potential doping ban hanging over him. Cavendish is one of the few cyclists in the peloton about whom there are no doubts when it comes to being ‘clean’, and has an honest and forthright style which does not always win friends but makes him extremely quotable. That, and the fact that he simply cannot stop winning, means he is guaranteed to generate masses of airtime for sponsors.

A more pertinent question would be to ask why even a Cavendish-less Highroad team – which would still have one of the deepest talent pools in the sport – should struggle to attract sponsorship. When the sportswear company Columbia ended their sponsorship in 2010, Stapleton had been unable to find a second title sponsor to sit alongside the phone manufacturer HTC. (Highroad is the name of Stapleton’s management company.) And now, as Stapleton explained to journalists yesterday, it has resulted in the decision to cease operations altogether:

We thought we had a partner that would have given us the necessary budget to operate the team on the same level as the past four years, but that deal collapsed Sunday night. We proceeded with other options. We ended our discussions with HTC last night. We decided that one final merger scenario would not succeed early this morning.

Is cycling heading for Doomsday – and would that be such a bad thing?

Sky's sponsorship has contributed to a shift in the financial playing field

All this raises concerns over the financial health and attractiveness (to potential sponsors) of a sport which has grown significantly since cancer survivor Armstrong’s dominance of the Tour raised its global profile and threw open the doors to the lucrative US market, and yet has been repeatedly stung by doping scandals. Already the two Belgian teams, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Quick Step, have announced they will merge next season, a year after Garmin and Cervélo combined. Other teams are reportedly having difficulties pinning down their 2012 budget. And the presence of big-money sponsors and owners funding teams such as Sky and Katusha further skews the market for everybody else, just as the arrival of billionaire owners has altered the playing field in football’s Premier League.

The doomsday scenario for cycling is the financial collapse of several smaller teams, which could force it down a cost-cutting route similar to what Formula 1 has been through in the last few years. This could mean fewer professional teams with smaller rosters, and consequently the contraction of a UCI race calendar which has recently forged its way into new territories such as Qatar, Oman and China.

A temporary consolidation and retrenchment of the sport need not be a bad thing, though. Cost-cutting measures in F1 have made it easier for new teams to gather the budget they require to enter and compete in the sport without detracting from the spectacle at all, as a result of which it is in a healthier state now than it has been for many years.

Where next for HTC-Highroad’s riders and staff?

Stapleton’s decision not to drag out the team’s death throes coupled with the talent present throughout the team – both in terms of riders and backroom staff – means that most if not all should find gainful employment elsewhere in the sport. He said:

After an exhaustive search to secure long term sponsorship we have concluded that it’s time to release our team members to pursue other options. Our team’s success has been based on our outstanding people. It’s in their best interest that we make this decision now. Our athletes are the most sought after in the sport, and our management and staff are the most capable in cycling. They will lead new teams and the sport forward.

Helping to create the individual success of the people in our team has been the most important and enjoyable element of our management team. We wish everyone the best for the future.

It is a genuine statement which speaks volumes about the spirit within HTC-Highroad, a team built from the disgraced embers of T-Mobile and which has been one of the biggest proponents of new ethical standards within the sport. They have also been fortunate to have had a natural leader like Cavendish, who has always been fulsome in his praise for his teammates’ efforts even when things have not gone well for him and has engendered a real sense of camaraderie among them.

Where Cavendish goes, Eisel is likely to follow (image courtesy of highroadsports.com)

The announcement of Cavendish’s new team will be pivotal in igniting cycling’s transfer market. The strongest rumours have linked him with Sky, although the new GreenEDGE team has also been mentioned in dispatches in recent days. In an ideal world, he would certainly take the nucleus of his current team – lead-out man Renshaw and road captain and roommate Bernhard Eisel – with him, although Renshaw may take the opportunity to move elsewhere to further his own ambitions. Goss will be a highly sought-after target, and could emerge as one of Cavendish’s fiercest sprint rivals in the coming years.

Whatever happens, the break-up of HTC-Highroad will see the end of one of cycling’s most talented and harmonious squads. The line-up has changed over the four years, but the spirit and the performance of the unit has remained constant. Their rivals will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, but it will be a sad day when the book finally closes on one of the sport’s all-time great teams. Farewell Highroad, and chapeau.

The week in numbers: w/e 20/3/11

Evans won Tirreno-Adriatico by 11 seconds

21 – Australia’s Cadel Evans became the 21st different winner of the Tirreno-Adriatico seven-day cycling race, defeating Robert Gesink by just 11 seconds.

1 – Australia’s Matt Goss became the first non-European to claim the Milan-San Remo one-day classic, winning a thrilling eight-man sprint in Saturday’s 102nd edition of the race.

2Inter Milan became only the second club ever to win a Champions League knockout tie after losing the first leg at home. They won 3-2 at Bayern Munich, going through on the away goals rule after the tie finished 3-3 on aggregate.

0 – Number of representatives from Germany, Italy, England and France in the quarter-finals of the Europa League – the first time this has happened in the history of the Europa League/UEFA Cup.

27Barcelona‘s 2-1 win over Getafe means they are now unbeaten in their last 27 La Liga matches, a new club record.

8 England‘s points total in the 24-8 defeat to Ireland which denied them a grand slam. It was their lowest score in a Six Nations game since a 31-6 loss to France in March 2006.

25 Brian O’Driscoll scored his 25th Five/Six Nations try against England, breaking the competition record set by Scotland‘s Ian Smith between 1924-33.

18Novak Djokovic improved his 2011 record to 18-0 by defeating world number one Rafael Nadal 4-6 6-3 6-2 in the BNP Paribas Open final in Indian Wells. Djokovic had already guaranteed he would move up to the number two spot by defeating Roger Federer in their semi-final.

60:23 – At his first competitive attempt at the distance, Mo Farah won the New York half-marathon in a new British record time of 60:23.

The cricket World Cup in numbers

131 Ireland‘s 131-run defeat by South Africa was their largest losing margin in a World Cup match, surpassing their 129-run loss to New Zealand in 2007.

Duminy fell one run short of a century against Ireland

99 – In that same game, South Africa’s J P Duminy became only the second batsman (after Adam Gilchrist) to be dismissed for 99 at a World Cup.

183 Shane Watson and Brad Haddin put on 183 runs, the highest opening-wicket partnership for Australia at the World Cup, as they cruised to a seven-wicket win over Canada.

2 – The NetherlandsRyan ten Doeschate scored his second century of this tournament, tying with A B de Villiers and Sachin Tendulkar. However, his 106 was not enough to avoid defeat as Paul Stirling‘s 101 (off 72 balls) helped Ireland to a six-wicket win.

206Bangladesh‘s 206 -run defeat by South Africa – they were bowled out for just 78 – was their largest margin of defeat in a World Cup match, and their second-largest in all one-day internationals.

34Pakistan ended Australia’s 34-game winning streak after bowling out the defending champions for just 176.

0Kenya‘s 176-run defeat at the hands of Zimbabwe ensured they finished this World Cup with no wins from their six games. The Netherlands were similarly winless.

21 – The West Indies lost their last eight wickets for just 34 runs as they were beaten by India by 80 runs in the final group phase match. They have not beaten a Test-playing nation in an ODI since June 2009 – a period of 21 months.

The Premier League in numbers

31 – Including blocked attempts, Tottenham had 31 shots in their goalless draw with West Ham.

Van Persie averages exactly a goal per game in his last 19 appearances (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

19 – In scoring Arsenal‘s equaliser in their 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion, Robin van Persie improved his record to 19 goals in his last 19 Premier League games.

28 – West Brom have now failed to keep a clean sheet in 28 consecutive matches – a new Premier League record.

1Steven Reid‘s third-minute goal in that game marked the first time Arsenal had conceded a goal in the first 15 minutes of a league game this season – making them the last team to do so.

4Stoke City‘s 4-0 win over Newcastle marked the first time they have ever scored more than three times in a Premier League game.

22Junior Hoilett‘s 93rd-minute equaliser in Blackburn‘s 2-2 draw with Blackpool should have come as little surprise. There have now been 22 goals in the last ten minutes of matches involving these two teams this season.

18Everton‘s 2-1 win over Fulham was their 18th straight home league win against these opponents (and the tenth in the Premier League era).

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times@InfostradaLiveCricinfo and @StatManJon.)

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