PRODUCED FOR ROADCODE.CC
It could be argued that in 2024, Michael Mørkøv and Davide Ballerini, newly of Astana-Qazaqstan team, have ‘one job.’ To deliver Mark Cavendish to a position from which he can win stage number 35 of his career at the Tour de France. And make history – again – this time as outright holder of the record of most stage wins at the Tour.
Both members of Cavendish’s successful 2021 campaign, during which he added four more stages to his already considerable tally and equalled Eddy Merckx’s record in the process, Mørkøv and Ballerini both leave Soudal-QuickStep after long stints to take on this unique and special project with their former colleague.
Road Code caught up with them both at the Astana-Qazaqstan Team Media Day in Altea, Spain, to ask arguably the most successful lead-out duo in recent Tour history how they’re settling in at their new team, and what it would mean to be a part of history.
Getting the Band Back Together
Of course, with Cavendish the star around which the Astana solar system revolves, it’s easy to forget that each of the cogs in the well-oiled machine that will form his lead-out train has their own priorities, and must be up to the task ahead of them. Journeyman lead-out rider Mørkøv heads into his 19th season in the professional peloton, yet he reveals he still feels strong.
‘I do feel strong. I feel that I'm on the same level as I've been for a few years now, which can be hard when you see younger riders coming, riding even faster. But I have the experience, and the know-how in cycling, which is also a great tool to have, together with the physics.'
With Astana shifting focus over the past couple of season, placing Cav at their heart, what is it like to once again be a part of his entourage, but at a different team?
‘It's been very nice to join Astana, having the feeling that they really want to do everything they can to support Cav and support us. I see it as a big luxury as a lead-out man to join a team where the sprint group have such a big impact. In many other teams, the main focus will be GC riders and climbers, and then you will maybe have a sprint group, but that will be a bit further down, in terms of making programmes and in terms of equipment. But I really do feel here that the team give us full support. And I feel really fortunate to be a part of it.'
After six years at Quickstep, Mørkøv appears unruffled by the transition to a new team, admitting that as part of the pro peloton for so long, there are more familiar faces than just his former teammates Cavendish and Ballerini.
‘I've certainly enjoyed my years with Quickstep, we had a lot of big successes, and especially in my group, the sprint group, winning with different riders. But coming into Astana, it's been a pleasure. The team is open-minded and really wants to create a strong group around Cav which of course makes it a very good team for me to be in.’
For Ballerini, Astana is familiar territory. The Italian signed his first World Tour contract with the team in 2019, a time that he says felt ‘really, really good.’ He notices big differences between his first stint with the Kazakh side, and now, in terms of the unity within the group. He admits there used to be natural cliques of the Kazakh riders, and the others. ‘It’s growing, the group, we are trying to pull everybody together. It’s never easy; sometimes it's happened also with the Italian guys because we are like five, six riders, and it’s easier when you are at the table to talk in your language. I think the most important thing in the team, to build the group, is for the group to be together. After this comes the victory.'
Ballerini is honest about his reasons for leaving QuickStep after four years.
‘I was searching for some new objective, and a bit of space also, because it was not always easy on QuickStep, in the classics. It was pretty beautiful, I know, but on Quickstep with eight guys when we started the race, like six guys can win, and this is not easy, as the director will say “okay, you do this, you can win the race, and you have to work." I gained a lot of experience. But I can put everything together here with Astana and we are 100% here. We have everything to show who we are.'
Teamwork makes the dream work
‘Mark showed me a lot of trust – and made me the best version of myself.’ – Michael Mørkøv
I can't pass up the opportunity to ask Mørkøv about a rumour going around that Cavendish called him directly from the ambulance after he crashed in the Tour de France to ask the Dane to join him at Astana. Was it true?
‘Well, I like how these stories develop,' says the Dane, before setting the record straight. 'So as I recall it, he called me the day after he crashed. Firstly, he asked me if I had a contract for the coming year and I said, "no." And he said, “Well, you know, if you would join Astana I could do another season.” So suddenly, it was up to me, whether he kept on riding or not. I think he just played me a bit, you know, like putting pressure on. But, of course, it was nice for him to point at me.
‘It was actually an easy decision, because I do like Cav, especially the relationship we had on the bike in ‘20 and ‘21. And he’s a great sprinter, maybe the greatest sprinter who’s been around, and I’m really proud to work with him.
Mørkøv was instrumental in the successful 2021 campaign. I ask him if anything has changed since then. 'It is just like coming back together. The bikes are a bit different, the colour on the shoulders is a bit different. But you know, like, him and me, is like being on Quickstep in '21. We even have Ballerini, who was also a key factor in ‘21 Tour de France,' he reflects. 'So we have a pretty good setup. And Mark is also one of the sprinters who showed me a lot of trust, which made me the best version of myself. And of course, that's why I'm also super excited to join him, because he makes me better.'
Ballerini reflects on his leader, and the state of play going into the new season. 'For me the first year with Cav, I really appreciated racing with him. They decided almost at the last moment to bring him to the Tour de France and he showed everybody who is. He's still here, he still wants to race, he still wants to win. And about the record; I'm really proud of this. We work a lot together. For me, we can do something special for sure. That's not easy. Maybe already on the first stage for sure. But if we are keep trying for sure we can do it.'
Mørkøv insists there is a reason why he feels Cavendish has won so many races in his career. ‘Obviously he is a great talent, but he also has a great talent of using his team. He understands how to use his team in the best possible way and how to get the maximum out of it. And he understands how to divide the tasks, so he gives me a lot of trust to put him in the right position and he just has to focus on the sprint. So in this way he is extremely talented, to take advantage of his teammates.'
Ballerini agrees on the vital element of team work, and more specifically team unity, to accomplishing their goal.
‘It’s important to stick together because the more time you stay together with your teammates, you pass the time with your teammates. Like here after dinner, we don't go immediately in the room but we stay together. We play cards, we talk about something, we watch some videos, this is really important because if you have one good rider in the team, he can do almost nothing without the help of the other guys, because the level is so high nowadays. So we are trying to do the best for everybody. And we take some ideas from everybody and we work on them.'
Mørkøv is confident that the experience he and Cavendish share, and their mutual understanding, may be the key to achieving that sought after victory at the 2024 Tour.
‘Yeah, I'm completely confident in Cav that he is going to follow me and he’s going to trust me, and trust our team. And I'm sure that at one point we’re going to succeed and put him in the winning position. If you're going to win the race or not, we can never guarantee that, but I'm sure we're going to be in contention.’
'If Cav would have followed my wheel on the Champs-Élysées he’d have already had the record.' - Michael Mørkøv
I ask Mørkøv to state for the tape what 'one job' the team has for the Tour in 2024. His reply is unequivocal:
‘To bring Mark into a position from where he can win a stage of the Tour de France.’
How would it feel to actually achieve that goal and be part of the not just the wider team, but the specific small team that would help Cav to achieve that goal?
'Of course, I would be very proud to be a part of winning a stage in the Tour de France, maybe more than if you get that record alone, or you still had the record together with Merckx. We kind of did it in ‘21, didn’t we?
'But I think for me, it's means even more, changing team. Also being 39 myself, Cav being 39, winning a stage in Tour de France is never easy, you know. And if we can prove ourselves, again, to win at the Tour de France in front of all the young, strong riders, it would be amazing.
I pose the same question to Ballerini. ‘It's beautiful because like I say, we have a really good group, I remember in 2021 every stage was crazy. Every time they heard in the radio that Cav won there was cheering. It is like when I win also; so this is the feeling when you win, when Mark wins, it's overwhelming.’
What do you think are the biggest obstacles to achieving that goal?
'Now everybody has the train, is building the train like we do. The Tour de France is one of the biggest races in the world. And all the sprinters want to go there, so this is not easy for everybody. But I think we are working really good, so we can make the difference.'
While it's likely that the field of sprinters will be stronger in this coming year, than it was in 2021, Mørkøv is unconcerned, and is focused inward instead.
‘There's a lot of fantastic riders around, there's a lot of strong teams, there's a lot of competition in the bunch sprints. The Tour de France is the highest level; if you want to win Tour de France, you have to beat the best. A bunch sprint is completely unpredictable. And I have big confidence in myself and the team and Cav obviously, that if we can dial in a very good lead-out we can bring him into a position from where you can win the stage. And I believe with our presence there we can try to win the stage.'
With a lot of climbing early on in the race, I put it to Mørkøv that perhaps the challenges aren't simply the other sprinters, but just getting through the mountains.
‘The Tour is getting harder and harder every year for sprinters, just to pass. There's some extremely hard stages but also just the way that the modern peloton is riding nowadays, attacking from the start and going extremely fast, makes it very difficult to finish within time limits. But of course that's a part of the race and that's something that we have to pass if we want to contest the sprints.'
In the end though, Mørkøv doesn’t resist the opportunity to point out that the outright record could already have been achieved.
‘If Cav would have followed my wheel on the Champs-Élysées he’d have already had the record. So we missed the one on the Champs-Élysées. But apparently there was a meaning to that, because otherwise, we wouldn’t even be sitting here talking about the record still. So I think it's possible.
He is asked, whether he constantly reminds Cavendish of that day?
‘Only when necessary.’
He gives a wry smile, and continues. ‘He's often talking about all the stages he didn't win on the Tour, like where he missed the record. But he never mentioned that. It's always some other stages.
Life Beyond the Sprint Train
While both riders will accompany Cavendish to some early stage races including the Tour of Colombia, the UAE Tour and Tirreno Adriatico, in preparation for the Tour de France, they both have room for their own personal goals this season.
‘I hope we can take some stage victories in these first races of course,’ Mørkøv says of his early season commitments. ‘Then building up to the Tour de France hoping we have a good Tour with a victory of course and then after the Tour I have the chance to change my focus for the Olympic Games and the track where I’ll go for the madison again.’
For Ballerini, his goal is more well defined, outside of the Tour de France. ‘My goal is the classics for sure. My first part of the season is ending up at Roubaix, then after Roubaix we'll see how it’s going and from that moment, everything will be about Tour de France about the lead-out.’
Unlike at QuickStep, Ballerini is looking forward to some dedicated support at Astana, and he reiterates the importance of having his team around him. ‘A lot of us are working on this. Like I say it's really important to always to stay together, especially in the classics, it’s important to know where you have to be, and in which kilometre of the race you have to be in the front because if someone wants to attack, like, 150km from the finish and you're behind because something happens, there is narrow road or something, you already spend energy to come back. If you come back. If you don't come back, it’s already over. It’s really important for all the teammates around me to know these important things. So we will do a lot of recon of the races where we are learning.'
And what keeps the two busy beyond the bike? Mørkøv insists there’s not much to tell. ‘I don't see myself as super interesting. Besides being a pro cyclist I’m Dad to three kids and I’m lucky having a very understanding wife, so that's pretty much what I spend my time on. So, I think you’ll find other guys with more exciting stories.’ He agrees that kids keep him busy, though. ‘They keep me busy, but having family you also kind of settle at home. Every day when they go to school, I am free to do my training. So it is also a nice structure to have family.’
Ballerini’s response is perhaps more typical. ‘I like to play video games, Play station for sure. Even during the season.’ His favourite game? ‘Call of Duty.’ But that’s not all he does. ‘Also I really love the mountains, walking with my dogs, just to stay in nature and relax. Because when you're in cycling it’s your life and when you finish you need sometimes to see friends or to go in the mountains and just relax.
While it seems likely that Cavendish will call time on his career having already extended his best before date twice, Mørkøv is open-minded about continuing on. 'I'm turning 39 next year. So at this point I take the joy to race, year by year. Of course, this year is a big motivation to race with Cav and targeting the Olympic Games for me personally. If you're gonna ride for a lot of years, it kind of depends what's around, you know, if there's some new young sprinters around, new projects, because I'm not sure that Cav can extend another year. But you never know.
'It's always a topic for a rider my age, you know, when to stop, but I really enjoy my job as a professional bike rider, I really enjoy diving into the sprints still, competing, so as long as I can do that, I would love to continue.
I'm intrigued to know what he views as the key to longevity for an elite cyclist. 'It’s a bit difficult to compare, you know, because being a domestique like me, I think you can probably keep on for more years. Like, I don't have that amount of pressure, constantly, like the sprinters or the GC riders have of performing. So I can be more focused on myself and do my best performances. But of course, this also takes a lot of motivation to keep on pushing yourself and keep racing. But from my point of view, it's passion.'
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