News feature, April 17, 2007
Mark Cavendish of Team High Road came out of nowhere to silence the crowd at the Scheldeprijs that had already started celebrating the victory of local hero Tom Boonen, who was fresh of his Paris-Roubaix victory. Cavendish was so fast in the final metres that neither Boonen nor the crowd realised he was closing in.
The cheers increased in volume as Boonen approached the line and even started to lift an arm in a celebration salute. What followed was the transformation from a roar of cheering into a much quieter grunt of disappointment. A dejected-looking Boonen crossed the line in disbelief that he let this one slip out of his hands and into the Manxman's.
Cavendish couldn't believe he almost let it slip out of his hands, admitting "I was too far back", and thinking the team would have been mad at him if he lost it on such a rookie error. Boonen wasn't the only one who let up too early, forcing the Briton to zig-zag through a splintered peloton. "Some riders sprint until the 300-metre mark," said an astonished Cavendish. "It was like dodging traffic islands. [But] anybody has the right to sprint. It's a one day race.
"I am not mad at those people," he added. "I am just justifying why I am so far back."
Cavendish, who claimed his second consecutive victory at the event, clarified his outburst after last week's Gent-Wevelgem, where he was visibly upset after the finish. "Last week, I couldn't even sprint, because there were so many people in front of me that were coming back [towards me]," he said.
While he may have out-classed the home crowd's favourite, Cavendish admitted he really enjoys racing in front of a Belgian audience. "Everybody is very passionate about bike racing," he noted. "And the [Belgian] press has always been good to me."
The Manxman's Scheldeprijs victory is special to him for a couple of reasons. The first is that he certainly was upset after not getting a chance to sprint in Gent-Wevelgem, where he had good form. "First time up the Kemmelberg, I told the team that 'I am gonna win this thing today', I felt so good," he recalled.
The other reason was a nostalgic one. "I won my first race as a professional here last year, so this will always be special to me."
Cavendish knew from the outset of the event exactly who would be his main rival. "We and Quick Step had the strongest teams," he said. "Both teams gave 100 percent for [their captains]."
Knowing that he had his American ProTour team's backing increased the pressure. "I nearly let my teams down a bit, as I was too far back," he recalled. "With 50 metres to go I still didn't think I was going to have it. Then Tom put his hands up. If I was a bit slower, I might not get it, but you could see how fast I was coming [by].
"I was a bit lucky today," he added. "If I don't win I feel like a failure."
Cavendish doesn't feel like a failure very often, having won two stages of the KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde and the World Track Championships title in the Madison, together with Great Britain and Team High Road team-mate Bradley Wiggins. The team chemistry certainly looked good today, with a beaming Cavendish hugging each and every smiling member of his team after the finish line.
Despite having a bad position, Cavendish managed to find the gaps and used his track ability to make it through the traffic. "But I was also lucky," he said. "Sometimes, like last week in Gent-Wevelgem, I am not so lucky and end up in the back."
Having beaten Robbie McEwen last year and Tom Boonen this year, the 22 year-old smiled as he lined up his next opponent. "Now, I only have [Alessandro] Petacchi to beat," he said. "I hope I can do that at the Giro d'Italia; we'll see. [I don't mind] if I beat 100 percent sprinters or little Spanish climbers. If I am first across the line, then it's good for me."
Wins are wins for the Briton, with Cavendish saying he can't tell if there is a different feeling having won in such a close sprint or when taking a sprint with three or four bike lengths. "I don't think I feel different," he said.
He certainly rejected the notion that winning against someone who already started celebrating is especially gratifying. "It's unfortunate for Tom," he noted. "I don't want that to happen to me, either. In fact, it happened to me once, in the amateur ranks, in a race in Ireland."
Cavendish's race schedule for the year is not fully fleshed out yet, but despite his young age he seems interested in doing the Giro and Tour de France, the latter with the goal of seeing the finish in Paris. He is also eyeing participation at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China this August. "If I can make it through the Grand Tours in good condition, it would be the best preparation for Beijing," said Cavendish.
Cavendish emphasised that he doesn't need a long time to switch over from road to track racing. "I finished Tirreno, then trained four days on the track," he described of the lead up to his Madison win at the Track World Championships.
So can anybody stop the sprinter extraordinaire? As long as he stays away from accidents, he should be okay. But the dangers are everywhere, often in the most unsuspecting place, which Cavendish learned when he slipped on the champagne-saturated podium after his victory. Cavendish fell on his back and it looked pretty bad, but the slightly embarrassed Briton got up pretty quickly, looking to stay away from accidents and continuing winning instead.
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