The man who must have the most immaculate garden in cycling, Rod Ellingworth, has finally emerged into the Woking sunlight to officially begin the job of principal at the team (soon to be formerly) known as Bahrain Merida.
He has probably not been surprised to find himself bombarded with questions about his first big signing, which sees Mark Cavendish reunited with one of the most instrumental figures in his career.
Ellingworth has said Cavendish is “not there on mates rates”. Which is to say, he’s expected to put the work in, and will be given no special dispensation. If anything the boss has probably got his sprinter for a song. If Cavendish doesn’t perform, doesn’t win races, he’s no more likely to go to the Tour de France than he was last season.
How will he get on? It’s a reasonable thing to wonder, but sprinters are a particular kind of athlete and Cavendish is a particular kind of sprinter. He’s also been through a long illness, though presumably he has now been given a clean bill of health. Regardless, there’s no way we can come up with a meaningful answer before the season gets underway. The early races should give us some sort of clue: If Cavendish can’t win in the Middle East in February, we can safely say he won’t win in Paris in July.
More interesting to speculate about right now is whether the team’s other major signing, Mikel Landa, will deliver for them. The Basque rider is in possession of what would, for most riders, be a perfectly respectable palmarés: Multiple Grand Tour stage wins, a Giro podium, 4th at the Tour while on the same team as the winner, a few minor stage race GC’s.
There remains, however, in certain circles, the sneaking suspicion that it could-slash-should be better. He’s one of those riders who has always looked more talented than his results would indicate. Partly that’s because he has never quite fit in anywhere. Since leaving Eukaltel-Euskadi in 2012, he hasn’t spent more than two seasons on the same team. See out the contract and try somewhere else seems to be his MO.
At Astana he was playing third fiddle to Nibali and Aru; Sky saw him taking the scraps that fell from the Froome plate. Movistar was never going to be the right move and you suspect he will especially rue those years spent as the trident’s second (or third) prong.
Will McLaren be the place where he settles? Was he the rider that Rod Ellingworth wanted, or was he simply the best the ex-Sky man could get? He’s worked with Landa before and arguably got more out of him there than anyone else has, anywhere else.
One difference between Landa’s new team and all his previous employers is he will be the out and out GC leader, with a strong squad devoted to supporting his ambitions. That means nowhere to hide and a whole lot of pressure. Most of his best performances seem to have come when no one has expecting him to deliver.
Our idea of his potential is based on those bursts of brilliance, such as in the Giro in 2015 when he soared his way onto the podium. Or the sight of him triumphing at Piancavallo by almost two minutes in the 2017 race where he had started as Team Sky co-leader. That time he was taken out of GC contention by a poorly parked police motorbike on the road to Blockhaus. Landa still salvaged a stage win and KOM jersey from the ruins.
There’s a fairly widespread belief that if only he could access those same physical resources on something like a consistent basis he could make magic. Ellingworth said last week that Landa is never likely to get a Tour route that suits him better than next year’s, and in the likes of Dylan Teuns he might never have a better bunch of riders around to look after him.
It’s not so much whether he can compete with Egan Bernal, Primož Roglič and the rest, but whether he will. The pressure will be on. There’ll be no excuses. We’ll find out soon enough whether he’s needed them all along.