Mark Cavendish abandons Paris-Nice after 'challenging two days'

British sprinter suffers setback in return to full fitness after Epstein Barr virus

Mark Cavendish abandoned Paris-Nice during stage 2 on Monday, with his Dimension Data team explaining that he is still working his way back towards full fitness following his struggles with Epstein Barr Virus.

Crosswinds battered the peloton on the opening two stages of the French WorldTour race, with a long list of crashes and riders who lost time due to the echelons and splits in the field. Cavendish's race did not come to an end because of a crash, but his team described it as "a challenging two days" for the 33-year-old.

He finished fifth last on stage 1, almost nine minutes behind stage winner and sprint rival Dylan Groenwegen (Jumbo-Visma), and left the race on stage 2 as the wind inflicted even more damage.

"Mark Cavendish was forced to stop on the back of a challenging two days," said Dimension Data directeur sportif Rolf Aldag.

"The race was just his third back, following already tough outings at the Vuelta a San Juan and the UAE Tour, as he continues to work his way back towards full fitness following a long lay-off from racing due to illness last year."

Cavendish has endured a tough couple of seasons after being diagnosed with Epstein Barr Virus. He missed several races in the spring of 2017 and thought he had recovered but it flared up again last year, and he did not race between August and the end of the season.

The Manxman has been easing his way into the 2019 season, with the aim of returning to his best shape for the Tour de France in July. He rode and finished both the Vuelta a San Juan in January and the UAE Tour last month, though he was cautious about his chances of success and ended up primarily working for teammates. The intensity was set to step up at Paris-Nice, one of the most prestigious races on the calendar, but he struggled on what many of his fellow pros described as one of the hardest - if not the hardest - days they'd had on a bike.

Cavendish is set to return to racing at Milan-San Remo on March 23.

"I'm not expecting anything for the first three months of the season, that's for sure," Cavendish had said in January.

"I'll always try, and the team will support me to try, but there's no expectation to do anything. I'm only human at the end of the day."

Dimension Data's Paris-Nice was made more miserable still by the loss of their general classification leader Louis Meintjes. The South African climber lost time in the crosswinds on the opening stage and a crash after 73km on stage 2 put an end to his race.

"The racing was on and I went through a roundabout and I guess I misjudged it a bit," Meintjes said. "It's pretty painful and I lost a bit of skin, it doesn't feel like anything's broken but we'll have to go to the hospital for a check-up."

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