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“If Mark Cavendish didn’t believe he could write history, he would have stopped racing” – Vasilis Anastopoulos Interview

“If Mark Cavendish didn’t believe he could write history, he would have stopped racing” – Vasilis Anastopoulos Interview

The new Head of Performance at Astana Qazaqstan Team believes in the ‘Manx Missile’ to break the record of Tour de France stage wins.

The year was 2021. Mark Cavendish was preparing for his final races of the season, but in a rather unusual place to do so. The coastal cliffs and ancient ruins of Greece may attract tourists from all around the globe, but such an unique landscape is rarely associated with cyclists, much less the world’s finest. However, it was not by chance that Cavendish stood amongst the myths and legends of the Hellenic civilization. The invitation to train in Greece came from his coach at the time and a Greek himself: Vasilis Anastopoulos.

More than rider and coach, the two have been close friends since Cavendish joined Deceuninck – Quick Step, when the preparation of the 2021 season was well underway. “He was late in the team, so they asked me to coach him and that’s how our relationship started”, Anastopoulos explains.

This is a partnership that has delivered 15 victories for the British rider in the last 3 years. 3 years, because despite the one-year hiatus in which they were in different teams, Cavendish never stopped texting his coach. “We had always contact about several things, the things happening in cycling, how he was doing the races, so we never stopped communicating and now it’s a great opportunity to reunite again and continue for one more year.”

As the 2024 season looms in the horizon, the British sprinter and his Greek coach are working together once again, this time at Astana Qazaqstan Team, to guarantee a transcendent outcome for an already immaculate career: winning a record-braking 35th stage in the Tour de France.

Mark Cavendish in the Tour, 2023 (Image credit: SprintCyclingAgency)

Vasilis, the Greek

Before delving into Cavendish’s big goal, we must make the disclaimer that he is not the only one to benefit from the partnership. It was actually the British rider who inspired Vasilis Anastopoulos to move forward with one of his biggest projects. “You have a really nice country, with some really nice roads and landscapes, so why don’t you start a Tour of Hellas?” Cavendish suggested during a training camp in Greece, and after a meeting with the country’s Minister of Sports, it was done.

The Tour of Hellas was brought back to life in 2022, but despite the “good success” of the first edition, it was the second edition in 2023 that had a special meaning to Anastopoulos. “It was really nice to see the race going again at a high level, also because I was the last Greek winner of the Tour of Hellas back in 2003, and we celebrated 20 years of this win.” More than the triumph in the overall classification, he treasures the stage win in his hometown Megalopolis, with all his friends and family in the crowd.

Before coaching riders, Vasilis Anastopoulos used to be, and still is in many ways, a rider himself. “I got really early into cycling because there was a cycling club next to my door, and I kept cycling until the age of 35.” In 2002, he made history by signing with an Austrian professional cycling team, thus becoming the first professional rider on the Greek scene. Asked about how he felt in that moment, he recounts that “at the time, it was something really strange. Nobody really knew what professional cycling was, it was a big challenge. But of course, I’m honoured to be the first professional in the history of Greek cycling.”

Vasilis Anastopoulos wins the Tour of Hellas, 2003 (Image credit: Tour of Hellas)

Over the last 20 years, Anastopoulos set the example that allowed other Greek youngsters to follow in his footsteps and in 2024, Greece will be once again represented in the pro-peloton, as Georgios Bouglas was recently announced as a Burgos-BH rider. “Before him it was Ioannis Tamouridis, who signed with Euskaltel – Euskadi and is a really good friend of mine.” Two Greek riders in Spanish teams, separated by a 10-year difference, a “good coincidence” noted by Anastopoulos himself.

When asked about his best memory on the bike, Anastopoulos responds without hesitation. “I once won a stage on the Tour of Rhodes, when it was 2.3, beating Kurt-Asle Arvensen and Fabian Cancellara in a borderline sprint, a really big moment in my cycling career.” Powerful memories like these cultivated in him a strong desire to revive these races, a dream that was made possible with the help of his great friend Mark Cavendish.

Coming back to this year’s Tour of Hellas, we suddenly realise the first of three upcoming connections between Portugal and Greece, via the winner of the race, Iúri Leitão. Anastopoulos was present at the race and the victories of the Portuguese sprinter captured his interest. “The sprints he did there were really impressive. Also his sprinting results on the track are really good, he is a European Champion and a World Champion. I am fond of him and I think he has a lot of potential.”

Vasilis Anastopoulos doing a traditional Greek dance, 2023 (Video credit: X/Soudal Quick-Step)

Coaching the elite

After finishing his career as a professional cyclist, Vasilis Anastopoulos immediately started to work as a coach, passing on his knowledge to the next generation of Greek cyclists… and beyond. “I worked with the Greek national team and then with the Continental team [SP Tableware], before stepping up to SEG Racing Academy, a project that started in 2005, in all the Under-23 categories, to train the new generation of [international] cyclists.”

From the Peloponnesus to one of the best cycling academies in the world, working with the likes of Fabio Jakobsen, Cees Bol, Ide Schelling or Stephen Williams. “So many good riders, who made really good careers later on”, as Anastopoulos puts it. Therefore, in SEG Racing Academy, he was instrumental in shaping all those young talents into the great riders they are today. But on the way up, it is important for them “to be patient, because nowadays everybody wants to become pro as fast as possible; and to look at their power-meter the less as possible. Also enjoy cycling before it becomes an obsession, that’s the most important thing.”

We then challenged Vasilis Anastopoulos to name the most exciting talent he has had the opportunity to work with. “Definitely riders like Edoardo Affini, who is a super domestique for Jumbo-Visma and a really good time-trialist, Fabio Jakobsen of course, and Cees Bol.” But being a good coach, his list is anything but exclusive. “They are some of the riders that have really impressed me in all those years, but if I have to pick up some names, I will be unfair to the other ones.”

Amongst the graduates of SEG Racing Academy was the Portuguese Tiago Antunes, who currently rides for Efapel Cycling, and here comes Anastopoulos’ second connection with Portugal. “I worked together with Tiago for one year, before I went to Quick-Step, and he was also one of the riders in my group. I was also impressed, and Tiago is a nice guy!”

Vasilis Anastopoulos with cyclists of SEG Racing Academy (Image credit: X/Vasilis Anastopoulos)

It was after 5 years of top-tier performance management of the next generation of international cyclists that Vasilis Anastopoulos received an offer to join Deceuninck – Quick Step, which he did for the 2020 season. “I have to be grateful to Koen Pelgrim, the head coach who picked me up and invited me to join the team, and of course to Patrick Lefevere, who is a really big role model for cycling; it’s no coincidence that he is running one of the most successful team in the peloton for the last 20 years.”

The most significant part of the Belgian team’s success lies on its strong identity, based on a philosophy of teamwork, unity and a shared sense of purpose. “All of the sports directors and the coaches really work like a family. The ‘Wolf Pack’ motto is reality.” Anastopoulos immediately fit into this philosophy and looking back on the 4 years he worked there, he has nothing but gratitude. During that time, he worked once again with stellar riders, but contrary to common belief, he argues that all the riders he encountered possess the “dedication, professionalism and talent” necessary to thrive. “There is no difference [between stellar riders and good riders]. We just need to find out what are the needs and special characteristics of the rider, to do our best possible for him and his development.”

Also in Quick-Step, Anastopoulos’ conviviality with Portuguese people reached its all-time high, as we discuss the third and final connection to Portugal. The Greek coach not only worked under direct supervision of Ricardo Scheidecker, the performance manager of the team at the time, but also orientated João Almeida in several training camps, including the one at Sierra Nevada that preceded his incredible journey of 15 days in the Maglia Rosa in Giro 2020! “I had good contact with João and even today we have a really good relationship. I am really proud of meeting them both.”

Asked about João Almeida as an athlete, Anastopoulos goes straight to the point. “To me, João can win a Grand Tour. He is a huge talent and one of the calmest guys I have ever met; he never panics. And you can’t keep a jersey for 15 days if you don’t have the necessary talent and capacity.” Refraining from commenting on the change of approach to the training of the Portuguese rider, he leaves the guarantee that his former trainee has “the best support in the world” at UAE Team Emirates.

João Almeida in Deceuninck – Quick Step, 2021 (Image credit: Wout Beel)

New old challenges

In the context of the friendship between Vasilis Anastopoulos and Mark Cavendish, it becomes obvious that the Greek’s move to Astana Qazaqstan Team, much like the training sessions of Cavendish in Greece, did not happen by chance. “He played a huge part, especially in the beginning of the season when he introduced me to Alexander Vinokourov.” As everything was more or less defined by early July, destiny would still play a trick on them. “When we agreed I would join the team in a 3-year contract, Mark announced that he was going to continue next year. It was a really good surprise for us.”

The rumour that Alexander Vinokourov has big plans to invigorate Astana Qazaqstan Team has been permeating in the world of cycling, and the question of whether we will see the return of the old Astana, that led Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru to Grand Tour glory, or a new team focused on sprints and classics raises curiosity in cycling fans. “For next year it is no secret that we will try to be protagonists in the bunch sprints. We want to do good results in the Classics with Ballerini and Cees Bol, and in the Tour de France we are going for the flat stages with Cavendish. Also, with Lutsenko, we want to be good in the Ardennes, in the stages of the Tour de France and later on the Olympics. These are the three big goals for next year.”

A much bigger principle is behind Astana Qazaqstan Team’s big goals for 2024. “Back when we thought that Mark was going to stop [his career], Vinokourov asked me to join the team to try to change the philosophy and to refresh the performance aspects”, while the possibility of signing a GC rider is on the table for 2025.

While many teams are still assembling, Anastopoulos already got to know his new home. “We already had a meeting with the whole team [teambuilding] in Italy, to meet the new riders. I also had to meet the staff and the other trainers, because I didn’t know anybody.” A renewed squad, with 15 new faces, who promise to go into their first training camp – scheduled for the current month of December in Spain – committed and willing to improve. “To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with the reception I had from the staff and the manager of the team [Vinokourov], and how they wanted to listen to new ideas and try something different”, Anastopoulos admits with an optimistic smile on his face.

Mark Cavendish wins Stage 21 of the Giro, 2023 (Image credit: Luca Bettini/SprintCyclingAgency)

With everything in place, it is time to get serious on the preparation for 2024, which will be a decisive year especially for Mark Cavendish. But while great innovations may sometimes be a necessary condition for success, the old recipes can work just as well. “We don’t do anything unusual [in training]. We focus on building the endurance and then we work a lot on the sprints, because what he needs to win a race is to arrive at the finish as strong as possible; this is what we will try to do from December on.”

Although it may seem confusing and even contradictory, sprints are just one component of a sprinter’s preparation. “The stages of the Tour de France are really hard, so he needs to be able to survive the long climbs and the long days, and to have energy at the end of the stages.” Survival is a big part of a Grand Tour and that reflects on the methodology that Anastopoulos will apply. “We will focus on improving the most his aerobe capacity and then his sprint capacity during the season.”

Cavendish’s preparation may have been going on for some time now, as Anastopoulos has been following his performance even from the sidelines. In parallel with the cycling fanbase, he vibrated with the victory that his friend achieved in Rome at the Giro d’Italia. “That day he had really good legs, his sprint was really good, like in the Tour de France stage where he had a mechanical but still finished 2nd [Stage 7]; I am convinced that he could have won that stage without the mechanical problem.”

Despite the promise of a few good results, there are some reservations to be made. “We should not forget we have to face up the new generation of sprinters: Philipsen, Jakobsen, and I also expect Ewan to be protagonist this year. The competition will be really high-level, as it is always at the Tour de France.” But Anastopoulos is not worried about the things that he can’t control. “Mark’s level last year was really good and we will try to improve just a little bit more so it will be enough to the Tour de France. We want to make sure that Mark arrives there at his best condition.”

Looking back on the many challenges that Mark Cavendish had to overcome in the last few years, a word of appreciation is entirely earned. “He is a big champion, a big fighter. If he didn’t believe he could achieve at least one more win and write history, he would have stopped.” This belief is shared not only between Cavendish and his coach, but also with the entire team. “That’s why the team has signed riders to make the best lead-out train in the world, with Mørkøv, Ballerini, Bol, really good and experienced riders who can carry him to the last meters of sprint stages, where it will be up to him to finish the job.”

Cycling is, above all, a team effort and sprints, as part of cycling, are no different. For Mark Cavendish to successfully kick into the final meters, he requires a leadout train coordinated to clockwork precision, something that posed some challenges to Astana Qazaqstan Team during the 2023 season. To improve, it is necessary “to work together in December and January and to do as many races as possible together, with all the guys. We still haven’t got an idea of how they can work together, but we will see during the races what works and what doesn’t.”

While a packed race schedule building up into the Tour can help in finding the best formation, a good train also requires a good driver. And that’s where Mark Renshaw comes in. “His experience, together with [Stefano] Zanini’s experience [Sports Director specialized in sprints], will play a huge role in bonding this train.”

We turn the attention back to Vasilis Anastopoulos and the nature of his work, which can get stressful sometimes. Even if that is the case, the Greek rules out this possibility. “I don’t feel any stress. I just want to make sure that everything runs smoothly this year and that Mark and the other riders have the best preparation in the camps and races they need to do.” Knowing that he did his best, he will always be prepared for the result. “If the result comes, we welcome it, but if it doesn’t come we have to accept it; we are talking about human beings, not robots.”

The belief is so great that we may not be talking about an ‘if’, but a ‘when’. When asked if Mark Cavendish will win his 35th stage at next year’s Tour de France, the answer from Vasilis Anastopoulos is a solid “yes”. Ending on strong conviction, we thank him for the availability to concede us this interview. Or, as they say in Greece, efcharistó!

Vasilis Anastopoulos with Mark Cavenidsh, 2021 (Image credit: Facebook/Vasilis Anastopoulos)
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