Mark Cavendish has underlined his early-season form by winning three stages in as many days at the Tour of Qatar, the first time he has put together such a sequence since he won the opening three stages of the Tour of Ireland in August 2008.
Back then, Cavendish was piloted by the Columbia-HTC team, an outfit whose mastery of the art of the lead-out train surpassed even that of Mario Cipollini's "red guard" at Saeco in the 1990s. At the 2013 Tour of Qatar, however, Cavendish has been feeling his way into life at a new team and, understandably, his nascent train at Omega Pharma-Quick Step is still very much a work in progress.
That said, Cavendish currently operates at a level where a straightforward lead-out is simply a useful advantage rather than an outright necessity [something he demonstrated most famously in winning the world championships in Copenhagen in 2011], and he duly used his own expertise to navigate the final 500 metres to win stages 3 and 4 in Qatar.
On Thursday in Madinat Al Shamal, however, Cavendish was given an armchair ride to the finish by his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, and he duly snaffled up his fourth win of the season, seeing off the challenge of Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
"They gave me a lead-out and it was like they'd been doing it for years," said Cavendish, who retained his overall lead with one day still to race. "I've always had commitment from the guys these last two days, but it's about getting it together. Today they were just incredible. They rode like a unit like I know Quick Step can do, and I was so proud to be at the back of that."
Matteo Trentin had been charged with being Cavendish's lead-out man earlier in the race, but the Italian had never quite managed to link up with his sprinter in the finale, and instead Cavendish had been left to fend for himself once Niki Terpstra dropped him off shortly beyond the red kite on stages 3 and 4.
On Thursday's stage 5, it was Terpstra himself who was Cavendish's lead-out man, and he delivered him to the final 250 metres at the head of the race. The Dutch champion had already led Cavendish out for the intermediate sprint with 26km to go, and even had the wherewithal to police a dangerous move from Taylor Phinney (BMC) and Bernhard Eisel (Sky) in the finale before resuming his role in the Omega Pharma-Quick Step train.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step directeur sportif Brian Holm explained that Terpstra had acted as lead-out man simply because Trentin had been called upon to help pull back the attacks in the finale. "Normally it would have been Trentin, but when the break went with Phinney and Eisel, Terpstra followed, which meant Trentin had to work a bit so they swapped over in the final," he said.
"Matteo had been working," Cavendish said later. "It's a different type of sprint [to the previous two stages.] I was contemplating sprinting in the saddle at one point, we were going that fast."
The versatile Terpstra has been one of the most impressive performers at this Tour of Qatar, and Cavendish paid tribute to his efforts in the finale, particularly his vigilance immediately after the second intermediate sprint, when he tracked Eisel and Phinney.
"Just after the sprint, I had Niki telling me to go with him, but just after a sprint, I'm a little bit on the limit," Cavendish said. "He's strong like that and he's up there on GC as well, so we have options."
The safest option, of course, is Cavendish, who now leads the general classification by 15 seconds ahead of Brent Bookwalter (BMC), with Friday's final stage to Doha Corniche to come. Even with that buffer, however, Holm was circumspect in his assessment of the overall situation.
"Of course, of course, it looks like he has a fair chance to win, we cannot deny that," Holm said. "Without punctures, crashes and bad luck, I think we have a fair chance."
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