In case it wasn’t already obvious that Astana-Qazaqstan is putting pretty much all its hopes on Mark Cavendish in 2024, the team announced this week that Mark Renshaw will be a full sports director for next season after a short stint with Astana as a consultant during the 2023 Tour.
Renshaw, 41, spent the better part of two decades in the pro peloton, and he was a key player in Mark Cavendish’s leadout train during some of the Manxman’s most dominant stretches. The Australian retired after the 2019 season, but Astana will rely on his technical know-how for mastering bunch sprints in the season ahead. It’s just the latest indication that the team is throwing everything it can at propelling Cavendish to a storybook final season.
Getting the band back together
Cavendish is currently tied with Eddy Merckx for career stage victories at the Tour de France, and got within perhaps a drivetrain skip or two of a record-setting 35th win at last year’s Tour before he crashed out of the race on stage 8. Instead of retiring, the 38-year-old sprinter decided to sign on for another year with Astana. The team, in turn, committed to support his aspirations by upgrading his helpers for 2024. A key to that is reuniting Cavendish with some of those who were crucial to his past success.
Chief among them: Michael Mørkøv, one of the best leadout riders of his generation, who was a marquee addition after signing with Astana on a one-year deal for 2024. That will put the 38-year-old Dane back in the driver’s seat in the Cavendish leadout train in what could be the final year of both of their careers. Mørkøv was instrumental in Cavendish’s resurgent 2021 campaign at the Tour de France, where he won four stages to tie Merckx’s record. With his contract at Soudal Quick-Step done at the end of 2023, Mørkøv made perfect sense as a new signing for Astana.
Mørkøv is not the only former teammate reuniting to bolster Cavendish’s leadout train: 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Davide Ballerini – another key part of that 2021 Tour team – is also coming on from Soudal. And while they don’t have experience as teammates of Cavendish, Max Kanter transfers from Movistar, Rüdiger Selig signs from Lotto Dstny, and Ide Schelling joins from Bora-Hansgrohe. The newcomers should represent quite an improvement over having basically just Cees Bol for the job in 2023. (Bol also returns.)
Finally, Astana also brought on a new head of performance in the form of Vasilis Anastopoulos, who was a coach at Soudal Quick-Step and played his own behind-the-scenes role in Cavendish’s 2021 revival.
Unfinished business and a big bet
Renshaw, for his part, isn’t exactly “new” to the team considering his arrangement with the squad during the 2023 Tour, where he was brought on for a role he described in a team statement as “sprint and leadout consultant.” Cavendish came oh-so-close to a record-setting win, nabbing runner-up honors on stage 7, but a crash the following day left him out with a broken collarbone.
In light of the way his 2023 Tour ended, Cavendish had unfinished business, and apparently, so did Renshaw, and the two will thus be reuniting in a more-regular capacity in 2024, with Renshaw as a sports director. The question is whether Astana’s all-in bet on supporting Cavendish’s drive for 35 is a smart one.
On the one hand, it makes plenty of sense to invest in giving Cavendish the best possible support crew as he hunts a new Tour stage win record. It will be one of the biggest stories in cycling all season, and from a sporting and a sponsorship perspective, it just makes sense to spend what probably amounts to a relatively low sum to bring a leadout rider of Mørkøv’s caliber in on a one-year deal and also add a sprint-focused sports director if they help Cavendish achieve something so impressive.
On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the opportunity cost of going all-in on Cavendish’s sprint aspirations is not nothing. Astana was the lowest-ranked team in the WorldTour in 2023 and had just five wins at the .Pro level or higher. Cavendish was good, winning a Giro stage and showing enough promise at the Tour to warrant a 2024 sequel, but when he crashed out, the team was left with very few other contenders and as such, Astana’s season in general was quite lackluster. While it was one of the most active teams in the offseason transfer market, aside from improving Cavendish’s leadout train, Astana hasn’t done much to level up its competitive prospects elsewhere.
Even if Cavendish sets a new Tour stage wins record, by the way, that alone won’t do much for Astana’s poor performance in team rankings. Like it or not, sprinters don’t tend to rack up the UCI points. 38-year-olds aren’t generally long-term investments either. In other words, while a Tour stage win record would make the team’s bet worth it, if Cavendish crashes again or just doesn’t deliver, Astana may have cost itself what could have been invested in developing younger riders with longer-term prospects. If it has another sub-par year of results, that could dig Astana a deep hole in the UCI rankings and put extreme pressure on the team for 2025, which ends with another round of relegation.
We’ll know in about eight months whether it all worked out in the end.
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