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MILAN (VN) — Mark Cavendish is riding into the unknown this Sunday in the Milano-Sanremo classic. After winning several races early this spring, including Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a virus has set back preparation for his springtime goal.
The Etixx-Quick-Step sprinter, perhaps the best of his generation, picked up a virus while at a sponsor’s event in South Africa. Diarrhea left him weak and almost saw him skip the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race last week. He started because it is such an important event and led in perfectly to Milano-Sanremo on Sunday. Without it, he would likely have no chance at all to repeat his 2009 win.
The Brit survived the stage race marked by rain and snow but failed to make an impression.
On the first sprint stage in Cascina, his chain came off in the final 200 meters and ruled him out, causing rival Elia Viviani (Sky) to crash. In stage 6, Tinkoff-Saxo, with the help of Alberto Contador, pushed the pace so high that he was popped, along with a handful of others, en route to a Peter Sagan win. Rather than completing the final 14.4-kilometer circuit under the rain, he pulled out and skipped Tuesday’s final time trial stage.
Even Cavendish explained that he is unsure where he stands with only four days before the 293-kilometer Milano-Sanremo.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “In Tirreno-Adriatico, you are under the weather. This year wasn’t a race you could ride into, it got harder and harder. It’s harder to tell if I’m tired from the race or … stopping [early] gives me an extra day, which is still enough time to see where I’m at before [Milano-Sanremo].”
While the remaining participants completed Tirreno-Adriatico in San Benedetto del Tronto, Cavendish trained with Zdenek Stybar, Fabio Sabatini, and Mark Renshaw farther north in Casabianca di Fermo. Afterward, they travelled up the coast to Castrocaro Terme in the Emilia-Romagna region, where they will spend the final days before Milano-Sanremo.
Ever since the organizer released the route — which is the classic version over the Cipressa and Poggio to Via Roma — the team marked the race as Cavendish’s major spring objective.
Some critics, however, have asked if it was responsible of the Belgian team to take its star rider from one hemisphere to the next during a hectic and important spring program building toward Milano-Sanremo. The trip was part of a meet-and-greet with sponsor and wine producer, Klein Constantia.
“How much of a setback? I don’t know I just got back, two days before Tirreno-Adriatico started. I can’t tell if I’m tired from that or the race,” Cavendish said.
“I’m proud of our sponsors in Etixx-Quick-Step, we have great sponsors, and Klein Constantia is owned by [Etixx team owner] Zdenek Bakala. That is one of the prestigious wine brands in the world. I’m proud to represent our sponsors. The wine? I wasn’t there drinking, but sure, I tasted it.”
Cavendish darted out from the small group to catch and narrowly beat Heinrich Haussler in the 2009 Milano-Sanremo. Last year, he came the closest he has to repeating the win by placing fifth. For 2015, he said that he is extra-motivated to try, as the race returns to the traditional Via Roma finish in the center of the seaside town.
“This finish is the Sanremo I dreamt of when I was a kid,” he said.
The team also has other cards to play, including Stybar — seventh in 2014 behind Cavendish in fifth — and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski. It announced the full eight-man roster this afternoon: Mark Cavendish, Michal Golas, Michal Kwiatkowski, Mark Renshaw, Fabio Sabatini, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Julien Vermote.
Besides his own team, Cavendish mentioned Tinkoff-Saxo as one to watch on Sunday.
“With how they rode [Monday], you have to look at Tinkoff Saxo and Peter Sagan. He’s in good form,” Cavendish said. “With the strength his team has, they are going to take control.”