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Cavendish takes over spotlight as British cyclist goes for 1st gold of London Games

07/27/2012 09:55 EDT | Updated 09/26/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Mark Cavendish spent the first three weeks of July carrying bottles for Bradley Wiggins, dedicating himself to the Londoner's ambition to win the Tour de France.

The world champion's hard work paid off, as Wiggins became the first Briton to take home the yellow jersey. It's now Cavendish's turn to take the limelight as a whole country is expecting the "Manx Missile" to win the first gold medal of the London Games.

Cavendish, the world's fastest sprinter, has spent the last 12 months training for Saturday's 250-kilometre Olympic road race, which passes some of London's most iconic landmarks and features the tricky Box Hill climb in Surrey that the peloton will tackle nine times.

If he remains in contention after the last climb, the 27-year-old sprinter has the burst needed to win the final sprint down the Mall.

"I know if I make it to the sprint I'm the fastest rider in the world, but I'm not the fastest climber in the world," Cavendish said. "I'm confident about the sprint but I've got to get to the sprint."

Cavendish changed his training regimen and lost nine pounds (4 kilograms) this year to be able to stay with other contenders in Box Hill, where the race is expected to be won or lost.

With coach Rod Ellingworth, he carefully previewed the narrow roads leading up to the top of the small ascent, riding it several times and paying attention to every detail of the course to be ready on Saturday, when a million of people are expected to line the road-race route.

Cavendish said the timing of the race and the huge expectations from the home nation don't add weight on his shoulders, but acknowledged that he is feeling some pressure.

"An Olympic medal, regardless if it's the first or last on offer, it's an Olympic medal for your team," he said. "It's easy to get emotional about it. I've been nervous this week. We've trained to be able to deal with those nerves and we've got to put it to bed."

Because his efforts to help Sky teammate Wiggins, Cavendish wasn't as successful at the Tour as in previous years, but still managed to win three stages — including the final one on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth year in a row.

"Mark thrives on a big stage," said British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford, who is also the Sky team manager. "You've got to give him credit for that, and stand back and admire his ability to take on that big stage and deliver time and time again. He worked extremely hard and he's got himself in a fantastic shape."

Cavendish will have plenty of help getting to the sprint, as he is surrounded by the strongest team in the field — including Wiggins, Tour runner-up Christopher Froome, veteran road captain David Millar and British champion Ian Stannard.

Every team member aside from Stannard won at least one stage at the Tour this year and helped Cavendish win at the world championships last year.

"It's probably the strongest Great Britain Olympic team on the road that has ever been assembled," Wiggins said. "People know what we are up to and we are going to do. I guess it's for other people to combat that. Our job is pretty simple, it's been no secret made that Cav wants to win it. He's got four incredible guys to help him doing that."

One of the biggest threats to a British win will be Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who won three stages at the Tour and the green jersey for best sprinter. Sagan's presence could help Britain, though, as it may encourage other teams to chase down any breakthroughs and keep the peleton together until the final sprint.

"Who's going to ride if Sagan is in a break?" Brailsford said. "So his presence could be one of our biggest allies. If he gets in a breakaway, I'd be relatively happy with that."

Former world champion Tom Boonen of Belgium, who missed the Tour in order to focus on the Olympics, will certainly attack on Box Hill to try and derail the Brits' plans. He will team up with one-day classics specialist Philippe Gilbert.

"We spoke about (strategy) with Tom," Gilbert said. "We are all in the same situation. We are all beaten if we finish at the sprint with Cavendish, even Tom. So we have to try to attack and make it the hardest possible race."

Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who finished third at the Tour and his known for his fighting spirit, will try to make the race as nervous as possible.

"It's not for sure that it will end in a sprint," Nibali said. "I've come out of the Tour in great shape and I'm aiming to do a great race."

Sprinter Matt Goss and all-rounder Simon Gerrans of Australia are also capable of pulling off a surprise.

"I think this is the best team Australia's ever brought to the Olympic road race," said veteran Stuart O'Grady, who will compete in his fifth games. "I think there's an incredible amount of experience in this team and it's going to be a major factor in the race. It's going to be tricky. On the circuit there are very small roads, and it's covered so it's quite dark. Once a few riders get out of sight, you won't have any idea who that is unless you're right up front watching the action. This is where experience comes into it."

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AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.

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