The Manx Missile easily outpaced Zico Waeytens (Giant-Alpecin) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) on the rain-soaked finishing straight in Santa Clarita after his Etixx-QuickStep team and the Hincapie Racing team of overall leader Toms Skujins brought back the final breakaway rider in the final three kilometres.
"It's one thing to be wet and to be cold when you're wet, but with the wind coming on you're freezing to the absolute bone," a shivering Cavendish said after the stage. "But it was good. All my teammates, thank you. It was hard to catch them back in the final but my team really looked after me."
"I had Mark Renshaw at the end, and as always he was cool and calm, but we had to dig deep," Cavendish said. "It was a bit hectic in the last kilometre and Mark was cooked, so we couldn’t go as fast as we wanted in the end."
With a headwind at the finish, Cavendish waited and timed his jump after the other riders started their sprints.
"Waeytens went first and I timed it well enough to catch him before the line. I'm super happy to get the stage win for the team."
The finish in Santa Clarita is not unfamiliar to Cavendish, who crossed the line here first in 2008 when he was only 22 years old and riding for HTC. Officials relegated him at the time, however, saying he relied too much on his team car to return to the group after flatting in the closing kilometres.
Asked if his win on Thursday was sweet revenge, Cavendish simply shook his head slightly to indicate it wasn't.
But QuickStep director Brian Holm did say that Thursday's win provided a bit of redemption for the previous day, when Sagan took the sprint win in Avila Beach ahead of Drapac's Wouter Wippert, while Cavendish finished third.
"After we kind of blew it yesterday, we made it good again today with a win, and the third win in five days," Holm said. "The rain didn't bother us. We're a Belgian team. We love rain and we're hard to beat in the rain. The bad weather was perfect for us. So everything came together perfectly today."