The first day of the Three Days of De Panne is often a difficult stage to control and so it was proven: Mark Cavendish was left empty handed after he and his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team succumbed to the power of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in Zottegem
Omega Pharma-QuickStep came into the stage with three clear aims: Tom Boonen needed miles ahead of the Tour of Flanders, Sylvain Chavanel had hopes of defending his 2012 title and Mark Cavendish was looking for his first individual win since the Tour of Oman.
However, Cavendish was unable to make the split with Sagan attacked for the final time on the run into Zottegem. The Slovakian champion went on to pull away a group containing Chavanel and Niki Terpstra and then take the stage win and race lead.
"It wasn't necessarily a difficult day, it was more a difficult day to control," Cavendish said as he sat on the steps of the Omega team bus.
"The wind wasn't really in a direction that could make a difference but it was a difficult direction to ride in, with mostly a headwind.
"We had two guys up there at the end and we were active the whole day. That guy [Sagan] is pretty unbeatable right now though. He’s one of a generation and he’s super, super good. He’s making us all look like juniors."
Though missing the stage win, the team came away with a few promising moments: Boonen slightly eased the nerves of his team with a show of strength in the Flanders hills, while Chavanel’s overall hopes remain on course. The Frenchman’s closest rival for the overall could well be his teammate Terpstra, who finished in the same time. The final day’s time trial is likely to decide the overall title.
Cavendish has shown his form in De Panne in the past. In 2008 and 2009 he won back-to-back stages, and on both occasions they were the second and third stages of the race. Omega Pharma-QuickStep are the most complete team in the race, and throughout stage 1 they controlled much of the action, with Boonen reeling in a dangerous move from Gaudin, and Chavanel always in the thick of the action. Luck wasn't on their side at times as both Nikolas Maes and Iljo Keisse suffered untimely punctures.
However, the team simply had no answer for Sagan’s aggression, and at times he appeared to be playing with the opposition.
"It should be a sprint tomorrow and we'll see what happens," Cavendish said, adding that "the form is good and I'm really happy. I was going well in San Remo and physically I went well on Sunday so my form is good.
"We wanted to do something on the GC here and if it came back for a sprint then we'd ride for a sprint, but today wasn't a day we could control for a that. It was always going to break up."