By Gregor Brown in Madinat Al Shamal, Qatar
Mark Cavendish, multiple stage winner in the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 2008, recorded his first win of the new year in the Tour of Qatar's fourth stage to Madinat Al Shamal. The Briton of Team Columbia-High Road thanked the man he beat - one of his top rivals, Tom Boonen.
"I want to thank Tom for opening the door again for me; it could have ended quite grimly. It was not like 'Cavendish one up on Boonen' because he could have easily had one up on me," Cavendish told Cyclingnews.
Columbia's sprint leader acknowledged that Boonen could have moved just slightly more to the right in the finish and left him with no space to pass; instead, Boonen kept his line straight down the road along the Gulf of Bahrain waterfront and finished the day in third, behind Cavendish and Heinrich Haussler.
The win was especially satisfying after a puncture less than 1,200m from the finish on Tuesday wrecked Cavendish's chances to contend the day's final sprint.
After finishing his successful 2008 season with the Tour of Missouri in September, Cavendish chose to race for the first time in Qatar as preparation for the Tour of California. This latest win should help in that preparation as his team faces a stern task on home soil later this month. After the Tour of Qatar, Cavendish will head directly to California to join his team in a training camp.
"It is brilliant after the bad luck of the last couple of days. I was lucky today, and I think I got my extra luck from Tom. He at least kept the gold and I won it [the stage]."
The Tour of Qatar started on Sunday with a team time trial, but every stage since has been flat and characterised by high winds. Wednesday's stage was no different, and despite the strong crosswinds Cavendish's teammates closed on the lead group in the final five kilometres of the 141km gallop from Doha.
"It started off with five, then it came down to four, and then in the last couple of k's there were only three of us left," explained Cavendish. "All of them did a perfect job. They gave me a lead out to the corner, where the crosswind ended."
The eighth edition of the stage race, February 1 to 6, continues Thursday with a 147.5km stage from Al Kharaib's camel race track to Doha. It's another flat parcours suited to another Cavendish and Boonen showdown.