By Gilles Le Roc'h
PARIS (Reuters) - Mark Cavendish embarks on his sixth Tour de France on Saturday a leaner, wiser man and a much more cautious one as well.
While everybody might have expected the Briton to win his yearly average of five stages, the world champion warned he had other goals this season and the tally might be less.
"I will win stages but I may not win five", Cavendish told a news conference in London on Tuesday.
He shed four kilograms since the Giro d'Italia in a deliberate effort to prepare for the London Olympic road race, which he sees as too hilly for pure sprinters to claim and follows quickly after the Tour ends on July 22.
"My sprint has suffered a little bit, but the guys who are sprinters, like I was, won't be there in the finish (of the Olympics)," he said.
The man from the Isle of Man is definitely not quite the same rider as the one who won the final sprint on the Champs Elysees a year ago, adding a 20th stage victory to his record while conquering the green jersey.
Since then, Cavendish became world champion, a father, and switched teams from defunct American outfit Columbia High Road to Britain's Team Sky.
He also won his first stage race a week ago in the Dutch Ster ZLM Toer, a "benchmark victory" proving that the weight loss had extended his range even though he was beaten in most of the bunch sprints.
The defending green jersey holder can no longer rely on a train of team mates to set him up for the battle to the finish line in the three weeks ahead.
In the Sky team for the Tour, only Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernhard Eisel will be especially dedicated to leading out the Manx towards the line while the others will mainly look after overall favorite Bradley Wiggins.
As a result, Cavendish also made it clear he would not hesitate to sacrifice the defense of his green jersey to help Wiggins in the last week of the Tour.
At the same time, the break-up of the Columbia team and the emergence of up-and-coming sprinters eager to challenge will make stage finishes possibly even more hard-fought than usual.
Australians Matt Goss and Mark Renshaw, the lead-out man for Cavendish in the past, are among the men out to topple Cavendish from his position as the world's fastest rider in the last stretch.
Germans Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, veteran Italian Alessandro Petacchi, Spaniards Joaquin Rojas and Oscar Freire and American Tyler Farrar will also be in the mix.
However, it would still be a surprise if the Team Sky sprinter leaves the Tour empty handed. Cavendish is also a fine tactician and his modest approach could be deceptive.
He is a fighter and competition usually pulls the best out of him while criticism has always spurred him on.
Cavendish proved in May's Giro d'Italia that he could win sprints in any kind of race scenario - on his own, led out by his team or by surging early.
"I am so much faster than the others anyway I can afford to lose a few percent in the sprint in order to be able to get to the line. It is worth it this one year, especially when the team is concentrating on the GC (general classification). It is worth doing that for the Olympics," he said.
His leaner figure should also make life easier for him in the mountains of the Tour and add consistency to his quest of a second green jersey.
The Tour cannot only be an Olympic warm-up for a rider of Cavendish's stature.
"I am doing both (The Olympics and the Tour) for different reasons. The Tour de France is my job. I have to do it, I want to do it," he said.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)