Mark Cavendish made his return to racing on Tuesday evening with a solid 9th-place finish in the prologue of the Tour de l’Ain, which was dominated by his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team, who filled the top four places as Gianni Meersman won the 4.6km test in Saint-Amour.
It was Cavendish’s first competitive outing since he crashed in the sprint finish at Harrogate on the opening day of the Tour de France. The Manxman underwent surgery on July 9 after dislocating his shoulder and damaging ligaments in the incident.
Cavendish resumed training in Tuscany on July 20 and while he missed out on the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, there were faint hopes that he might be able to race on home roads at the RideLondon Classic at the weekend. Instead, he opted to delay his return until the five-day Tour de l’Ain.
“The race in London was too close, I needed to concentrate on a block of specific work in Italy to prepare for my return,” Cavendish said, according to L’Équipe. “The Tour de l’Ain will be important to see where I am.”
Cavendish’s 9th place in the 4.6km prologue, just 8 seconds off the time set by his teammate Meersman, was an encouraging start, but on Twitter, he jokingly relayed the pep talk his mentor Brian Holm had given him beforehand: "You'll be fine in the prologue, but you'll struggle on the climbs."
Those words were echoed by directeur sportif Davide Bramati after the prologue, who said that it was too soon to confirm whether or not Cavendish would be able to participate in the Vuelta a España, which gets underway in just ten days’ time in Jerez.
“He will know more after the first stage, where it’s hilly at the start and then flat in the finale, but he might even have to wait for the second stage to be truly informed about his condition,” Bramati told L’Équipe. “You can’t look any further than that, because imagine if his shoulder is still sore or if he needs to stop again.”
One man who is certain to be in the Omega Pharma-QuickStep line-up for the Vuelta is Rigoberto Uran. The Tour de l’Ain is the Colombian’s first race since he finished second overall at the Giro d’Italia and he returned from his 73-day lay-off with fourth place in the prologue.
QuickStep’s Julien Alaphilippe and Pieter Serry finished second and third, but the evening belonged to Meersman, who won the Tour de l’Ain prologue for the second successive year.
“I am really happy because this morning I thought about this exact result," said Meersman. "I thought about how I won this stage last year and, why not, I can try to win it again.
“The course was different from last year in that it was not so technical, but the last 500 meters were uphill. I think that section is where I won the race. I am also thrilled because we finished 1st through 4th, which means the team here is really motivated and strong.”