Mark Cavendish played down his ambitions, was coy about his fitness and shrugged off any pressure to perform on his season debut at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina. He was seemingly happy just to be back in the peloton after two seasons disrupted by mononucleosis, crashes and a series of comebacks that would have pushed some riders to throw in the towel. Cavendish is still here.
The Manxman arrived in Argentina at the same time as his Dimension Data teammates and many of the other riders that will be in action during the weeklong stage race that begins on Sunday. They travelled from Europe, while Cavendish came from California where he had been training for several weeks, often doing the hard miles with Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Pete Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe), and MotoGP rider and close friend Cal Crutchlow.
Cavendish has not raced since the RideLondon-Surrey Classic at the end of July after again being forced to rest up and let his body recover from a second bout of mononucleosis. The virus was probably affecting his performances even as he fought for success in the Tour de France sprints. After several months of rest, he has gradually cranked up his training over the winter and is hoping for a fresh start in the early months of the 2019 season after deciding to stay with Dimension Data for another year.
He will turn 34 in May and is about to start his 13th season as a professional, but his competitive spirit and character seem as sharp as ever. He is understandably cautious about his chances against Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the sprints at the Vuelta a San Juan. His build-up to 2019 is far more gradual, and like a long sprint from the back of the peloton, he is coming from much farther back.
“It's always a bit of an unknown coming into the season, especially after a six-month layoff, but it's nice to get back into racing especially after a long time training. Everyone kind of looks forward to the season, especially when it's quite a relaxed race like here in San Juan,” Cavendish said on arrival in San Juan before heading out for his first ride with his teammates in the 35C temperatures of the late Argentinean summer on Saturday.
Cavendish seemed genuinely happy to be back in the pro cycling melee. Other riders are now dominating the sprints, but he is one of the global stars of the sport and was pursued by local fans as soon as he arrived in San Juan for selfies and autographs.
“It’s my job, but I look forward to getting back racing again,” admitted Cavendish. “I don't know what point I'm at. I'm just training, just doing what I can to get back from two years of mononucleosis.”
He swatted away any questions and expectations about Sunday’s first sprint but did admit to some nerves as the hours counted down to his return.
“We will have to see. I don't know. I've been off for mononucleosis for two years, we'll just have to see,” he said. “You never know how you are going into the first race. It's same for everyone.”
Cavendish has done the work in California in recent weeks but insisted he has not done the high-intensity sprint work that gets him at his very best. His bike skills and desire will perhaps make up for any lack of anaerobic capacity in the sprints.
“It was a bit wetter than I had hoped for, but I got the hours in and I was able to train well there, consistently. I'm looking forward to racing,” he said of his spell in California.
“It's January. Anyone who's doing high-intensity training now, the sprinters, they aren't really going to going that well in July. I never do high intensity in January.”