Cavendish ends win drought with careful tactics

Mark Cavendish earns his first win in nearly a year after fine-tuning his sprint tactics to overcome faster rivals and stronger teams.

Seven months after fracturing his shoulder blade at the 2017 Tour de France, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is finally back atop a podium.

A stage win at the Abu Dhabi Tour in February was his lone victory last year. The summer following that early-season win was tough. Tangling with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on stage 4 of the Tour de France, Cavendish hit the deck and broke his shoulder blade, forcing him to abandon.

Although he was back to racing later that September, Cavendish was winless until this Thursday afternoon. He came up short in the first two sprint finishes of the Dubai Tour. So, he assessed his rivals’ strengths, made a plan, and came home first in stage 3.

“Yesterday I realized I can’t really match Elia [Viviani] in a drag strip,” Cavendish said after the win. “I knew I had to just leave it late, wait until he passed his peak and he was set into his sprint and then use a slingshot to kind of pass him.

“I’m happy with that, to get the season underway with a win.”

Viviani wasn’t the only notable speedster Cavendish beat Thursday. He also crossed the line ahead of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin). The long-awaited win would have been a big confidence-booster regardless, but toppling such a field makes the victory all the sweeter. Plus, the sprinters he’s racing against have finely tuned lead-out trains.

“You see there’s strong teams here. Quick-Step looks particularly strong,” Cavendish said, joking that he’d built the sprint squad on his former team. “They’re just a class above, that Quick-Step team in the sprints. Cofidis look good. Lotto-Jumbo look good. We know that there’s a few strong sprint teams. We need our full-power A-team to come close.”

Even with that first win of the year under his belt, Cavendish isn’t content. He couldn’t help but point out a few of the things still bugging him.

For one, he would likely be in the overall Dubai Tour lead if he hadn’t pulled up in the final meters of stage 2 upon realizing the sprint win was out of reach. With that in mind, Cavendish refused to spend too much time patting himself on the back after the stage 3 win.

“I’m really disappointed now that I sat up in the sprint yesterday,” Cavendish said. “I’m quite angry with myself. More than I let myself down, I’ve let the team down. I could be in the jersey now if I hadn’t sat up yesterday. I couldn’t have won yesterday but I would have been second.”

He also pointed out that he’ll be dealing with some of the aftereffects from his 2017 crash for the rest of his life. Cathartic early-season win or no, he won’t be forgetting about his fall at the Tour anytime soon.

“I still feel it. I keep pushing on my shoulder, right where the hole in the bone was, and I see the scapular nerve passes over. I get pins and needles in there, and I will for the rest of my life,” he said.

That said, Cavendish also acknowledged the positive takeaways from Thursday’s result. He noted that he’s got work to do to reach Tour de France shape, but he’s happy with his form in his first race of the season.

“I’m nowhere near the form I’d be in July, but I’m happy with where I am for February,” he said. “I had a strong winter, and I wanted to come into the early season and hit the ground running.”

Cavendish did just that with Thursday’s win. He’ll try to follow it up with another before the end of the sprinters’ battle royale that is the Dubai Tour. Friday’s uphill finish at Hatta Dam may be too steep for Cavendish to put his speed on display, but Saturday’s finale should be another great opportunity — assuming he can find a way to top his former team again.

Asked in Thursday’s post-win press conference if he knows how to beat Quick-Step, Cavendish was perhaps humbler than expected. He paused for several seconds before saying only “sometimes,” and acknowledging “it takes a bit of luck as well.”