Mark Cavendish carefully watched the replay of the Scheldeprijs sprint on the big screen before going to the podium area and then climbing on the second step alongside winner Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal).
He was disappointed to miss out on victory by a quarter of a wheel but was not angry or downbeat. He was happy to back on form and showing he is still one of the best, if not the best, sprinter in the peloton. He also took heart from a strong ride by his Dimension Data teammates and is keen to pay them back by riding in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen at Paris-Roubaix.
“At the end of the day, it’s Kittel. It’s not like I f*cked up, I gave everything, the team gave everything, we gave it everything but he was just better today.” Cavendish said
“He's got a great lead-out now, and I knew he'd be in the front. I was on his wheel, but in the spray from the road I couldn't see how far to go. I thought, ‘Perfect’, he'd hit it too early, then I saw 150m to go. I was coming, coming but just when I got next to him he went again. I used to be able to do that, but I can't do that anymore.”
Cavendish was well placed throughout the race thanks to support from his teammates. Signs of nervousness in the final laps in Schoten were a clear sign he was keen to fight for victory. The wet conditions made for a tense final 16km lap and Dimension Data even tried to split the peloton when a side wind blew across exposed roads. When that didn’t work, Cavendish used his bike skills to secure Kittel’s wheel before the final turns and stayed there until starting his sprint just as Kittel and Greipel kicked too.
"With my… age, I’d rather have a smaller group sprint. The weather was playing up and getting wetter and windier, so we tried to go with a couple of laps to go. But Kittel wasn’t there, so Etixx didn’t ride,” Cavendish explained.
“I knew I had to be on the Etixx team. That was fine and we’d talked about that. Tyler was there too in case we needed him but Kittel was the best wheel to be on. The guys were superb the way they looked after me. At the end of the day I’m super happy with that. I did a good ride, the Dimension Data guys did a good ride. Just, as always, Kittel’s a bit faster at the end. I’ve lost by closer this year. It is how it is.”
Asked the difference between winning and losing, Cavendish was laconic with his reply.
“Seven inches and 20kg made the difference,” he said, referring to Kittel’s stature and extra weight.
Back after a block of training and ready for Paris-Roubaix
Some people were surprised that Cavendish did not ride Gent-Wevelgem or the Three Days of De Panne. However, he explained he had preferred to miss some races and train hard, with the goal of having a chance of victory at Scheldeprijs and laying a solid foundation for the rest of the spring and early summer. Cavendish has mixed his road training with specific track work during the winter as he pursues a place in the Great Britain track squad for the Rio Olympics. He refuses to give up on his Olympic dreams.
“I needed a good block of training,” he explained, confirming he had spent time training in Tuscany since riding Milan-San Remo.
“I didn’t want to come into this race mediocre and not be able to do a good job in the likes of E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix. If I’m going in at 70 per cent and then racing and recovering after races, I’m kind of chasing my tail, I can’t do a great job for the team. So I thought it was best to miss a couple of races and then comeback good for a couple of races, go for the win here and do a good job on Sunday. I’m happy that the team gave me the freedom to do that. It’s what this team is about; they listen to what we have to say and comeback and do well in the next part of the season.”
Cavendish will ride Paris-Roubaix for just the second time in his career. The first was back in 2011, while he was still at HTC, but he failed to finish. Since then team strategies and expectations for him to win as many sprints as possible for Team Sky and QuickStep put an end to any personal ambitions at Paris-Roubaix.
“The problem is that I get paid a lot of money in the teams I ride for to do well at the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of California and the Tour de France. So teams don’t want me risking things at Roubaix,” he explained honestly.
“I ideally joined Quickstep to learn to ride Paris-Roubaix, I thought it was the best place to do that but (Quickstep directeur sportif) Wilfred Peters didn’t like me riding with him. With him I was never within a shot of riding….
“This team is letting me give it a go. I don’t want to finish my career and regret not trying to do something in Paris-Roubaix. I don’t think I can win Roubaix but there aren’t many races where I can pay back the guy who work so well for me. Edvald is going really well, so I’d like to do something for him on Sunday.”