With Belgium's version of the cycling Super Bowl, the Tour of Flanders, just days away Omega Pharma-QuickStep showed its collective strength to deliver Mark Cavendish to his sixth individual stage victory of the season, his first in Belgium, at the Three Days of De Panne in Koksijde.
Orica GreenEdge and Lotto Belisol revved up their lead-outs from 20km to go on the 204.2km stage and with no sign of Tuesday's winner, Peter Sagan (Cannondale), at the front, Tom Boonen rallied his Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammates to set up Cavendish for the win. It was a circumstance that nearly didn't happen though, as the Manxman revealed in the post-race press conference.
"I didn't feel that great actually earlier on in the day," Cavendish admitted. "We talked this morning about doing what we can to dig in for a bunch sprint. Halfway through I was like, 'I don't know if I can do it today.' I didn't feel great, but as the finish grew near we just kind of got to the front. It wasn't even spoken about. We were just doing it, like we were going for the sprint."
With Stijn Vandenbergh, Gert Steegmans, Iljo Keisse and Niki Terpstra gritting their teeth, their effort evident on their faces, Cavendish tucked in behind the Dutch champion, and was perfectly placed coming into the final right-hand bend when Kenny Dehaes (Lotto Belisol) took over. It looked like a perfectly executed plan but in fact, the ordering may not have been what had been stipulated before the race.
"With the guys we've got here, I think we can pretty much swap the guys around where ever we want," Cavendish explained. "It worked out. If we'd written on paper what we were going to do it was probably the reverse."
None of it mattered.
Today's result shows that Omega Pharma-QuickStep has a three-pronged attack heading into tomorrow's final two stages, with Cavendish in third, five seconds behind leader Arnaud Demare (FDJ), while Chavanel and Terpstra remain another second back. Cavendish explained that while some were under the impression that the team had been sprinting for the win in Tuesday's opening stage, the reality "couldn't be further from the truth", and the true battle was being played for the squad's GC hopes - defending champion Chavanel and Terpstra.
It's a team effort that's not lost on Cavendish, who worked tirelessly for his teammates on Tuesday.
"One of the biggest stars who has ever been in cycling, he's one of the guys who has got the most faith in me," Cavendish said of Boonen. "That's incredible. I spoke to Tom last night, and I said 'It really means a lot that you're here.' It's the first time we've raced to a final together this year, as at Gent-Wevelgem he crashed out.
"But seeing the confidence he had in me yesterday, and I mean all the guys as well, it's really nice. I spoke to them last night about that and you've seen the same again today. These guys are flying. It could be easy for them to take their own opportunity to win races here in Belgium. But they're committed to the new guy on the team and it means a lot to me."
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