Cavendish turns around Etixx-QuickStep with Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory

Sprinter shows top form ahead of Milan-San Remo

“I’m not a bad bike rider, to be fair,” Mark Cavendish said on Sunday afternoon and it was hard to quibble with that assessment after a Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne victory that saw him showcase his range and put a rather brighter sheen on his Etixx-QuickStep team’s Opening Weekend.

Cavendish’s winning sprint on the Brugsesteenweg had the feel of a dress rehearsal for the Via Roma three weeks from now, as he overhauled Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and held off Elia Viviani (Sky) to claim his seventh win of the new season. He may take just as much heart, however, from the fact that he had the legs to make what had seemed like the race-winning selection over the top of the Oude Kwaremont with 70 kilometres till to race.

Along with Kristoff and Viviani, Cavendish was among the 19 riders who spent 30 kilometres off the front of the race, but the presence of four of his Etixx-QuickStep teammates in the move meant that he had the relative luxury of following the wheels. The selection, forced by Tom Boonen, was a very public response to the team’s disastrous handling of the finale at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.

“I’m not a bad bike rider and I’m in by far the strongest team,” Cavendish said. “You saw that yesterday too. Ok, it was a bit of a fuck up in the end but it was still a big show of strength by the team yesterday and it was the same today. After being caught, to be able to change the tables and commit 100 percent to the sprint was great you know.”

Cavendish, of course, sat out Omloop in preparation for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and he was unwilling to dwell on the question when the local press asked for his assessment of how Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra had contrived to cede victory to Ian Stannard (Sky) on Saturday.

“Yesterday I was sat on my bed watching it so I can’t really talk about it,” Cavendish said, though he added that the mood in the team’s base at the Kennedy Hotel in Kortrijk was about as upbeat as it could have been in the circumstances.

“I won’t lie, I was a little bit nervous going down to dinner but we had a good atmosphere. Ok, it wasn’t nice what happened yesterday but everybody turned their head towards the next goal, which was today.”

When Cavendish spoke to Sporza immediately after the finish, he had suggested that directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters had his doubts about whether riding for the sprint was Etixx-QuickStep’s best option at Kuurne. When he talked to the written press shortly afterwards, Cavendish praised Boonen for speaking up in support of his chances ahead of the race.

“Tom’s won here three times but he said this morning on the bus, ‘Yeah, I’ll do the lead-out for Cav for it.’ It could have been easy for him to want to go for his fourth but he committed to the sprint on behalf of the team and tried to guarantee the win as best we could,” Cavendish said. “It was nice.”

Cavendish’s victory was his seventh of the new season but had an added value, perhaps, in that it was his first tête-à-tête of the year against Kristoff, who so impressed at the Tours of Qatar and Oman. “I’m happy to beat Kristoff, he’s one of the best riders in the world right now,” he said. “He’s had super form and I’m happy to have won in the first showing against him this year.”

Next on the agenda for Cavendish is a trip to South Africa to appear at the Cape Town Cycle Tour on March 8 at the behest of team owner Zdenek Bakala, before he returns to ride Tirreno-Adriatico in preparation for the major rendezvous of his spring at Milan-San Remo. He will hope, too, that victory in Kuurne is enough to secure him a place in Etixx-QuickStep’s selection for Gent-Wevelgem.

With that in mind, perhaps, Cavendish was quick to disarm the notion that his victory on Sunday had come easily to him. “It wasn’t easy, fucking hell, it was Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne,” he said. “It was hard all day you know. It wasn’t easy but I had great support and I was able to sprint for the win.”

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