The sprinter from the Isle of Man will be carrying the weight of the home nation when he goes to the starting line Saturday morning on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace, but many riders are picking 22-year-old Slovakian sensation Peter Sagan to upstage the British star.
"He's the biggest talent I've ever seen," American sprinter Tyler Farrar said Friday.
Farrar's teammate, 40-year-old Chris Horner, thinks the 250-kilometre road course and its nine circuits of the punchy Box Hill climb in the Surrey countryside could be too much for Cavendish, who prefers flatter courses with straight finishes.
Horner thinks Sagan, who has shown the ability to easily handle more moderate climbs, is the rider to beat after his revelatory rides in the Tour of California and the Tour de France.
"He's probably the biggest threat to Cavendish," Horner said. "He's going to destroy the field up the climb at some point. I don't think he wants to come to the finish with Cavendish, and certainly his odds of winning are going to be fantastic if he comes with a small group."
There are certainly other riders who have the ability to shake up a sprint finish.
Germany's Andre Greipel is coming off three stage wins during the Tour de France. Australia's Matthew Goss has shown good legs most of the season, and he's backed by a strong team that includes former Tour winner Cadel Evans, Simon Gerrans and Michael Rogers.
"You've got to have a really open mind for this race," Goss said. "It's not just Box Hill. You're going up and there's no descent straight away. It's up and down, undulating the whole lap. It's going to be really hard to control with five guys. I could see a few of the bunches get together."
That's what the American team thinks will happen, too.
Sagan likely will try to split the peloton on Box Hill, positioning himself in the first group with the knowledge his sprinting prowess should allow him to pull away late.
Cavendish likely will be in a trailing group, leaving it to a British team that features Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and stage winners David Millar and Chris Froome to pace him back to the front over the roughly 30 miles from Box Hill to the finish line.
"I would put Sagan down as my absolute favourite," Horner said, "if he can arrive here with the same form he's had all year, which I don't see why not."
"He's going to be extremely strong on the climb, and maybe have a little bit of patience to see if someone else attacks," Horner said. "But if not, he's going to definitely split it on the climb at some point in time. He'll be in the front group and Cavendish will be in the second, third or fourth group, but Sagan will definitely be featured at some point."
Sagan's big breakthrough came in this year's Tour of California, where he won five of eight stages and was second in another. His impressive form carried over to the Tour de France. Sagan and Cavendish each won three stages, but the Slovak won the coveted green jersey given to the rider who amasses the most points during the sprints.
It's the same jersey that Cavendish won last year.
"We just have to key off those guys," said New Zealand's Greg Henderson, one of the darkhorse sprinters hoping Cavendish gets dropped on Box Hill. "I race them every weekend. I just raced three weeks around France with them. I'm not intimidated at all. I know how to go against them."
Still, Cavendish is the favourite to win for a nation burning with cycling fever.
Bookmakers around London are generally taking 5-4 odds on the "Manx Missle" to deliver the road race gold medal. Sagan is generating the next-best odds, depending on where you go, with Greipel, Goss and Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert also getting some action.
What if Gilbert was a betting man?
"I wouldn't bet on Cavendish as the odds are too low," he said with a laugh. "I would take a bit more of a risk. I don't know. Perhaps I would bet on Sagan."
He wouldn't be alone.Suggest a correction