No sprinter is content with anything less than a victory, far less a man with 30 stage wins at the Tour de France to his name, but considering the circumstances, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) could hardly be disappointed with his fourth place finish in Liège on stage 2.
Cavendish is, of course, fortunate to be at the Tour at all after his season was interrupted when he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus in early April. He returned to action at the Tour of Slovenia, but acknowledged ahead of the Grand Départ in Düsseldorf that winning a stage here would require considerable guile in light of his diminished physical condition.
The Manxman battled gamely in the finishing straight on the Quai des Ardennes on Sunday, but he had to settle for fourth place, as Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) delivered a powerful effort to win ahead of Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and André Greipel (Lotto Soudal).
"It was as expected, really. I'm happy with that. Six weeks' training to get fourth on a Tour stage, I can only be happy," Cavendish said as he sat on the steps of the Dimension Data bus after the stage. "Okay, you always want to win, but like I said, fourth in a Tour stage is really a lot better than I expected."
Cavendish has come from a long way back just to be at this Tour, and he had to make up a lot of ground, too, in the finishing straight. His initial plan was for Mark Renshaw to deposit him on the back of the Lotto Soudal lead-out train, but Cavendish instead decided to drop back rather than risk hitting the front too soon. Just like his build-up to the Tour, there was a point when the endeavour began to feel like a lost cause.
"I must have been in about 20th or 30th with 500 metres to go," Cavendish said. "But I thought the only I'm going to get better is to start sprinting anyway. I surfed and I ended up on Marcel's wheel, and I thought, 'perfect,' but when he went I was just sprinting on his wheel. There was no way I could come past him. If I'd stayed on his wheel, I probably would have been second but Démare came and pushed me off."
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Cavendish has always been an astute sprinter – witness his outmanoeuvring of Alessandro Petacchi at Teramo in the 2011 Giro d'Italia, or his decision-making in the finale of the same year's Worlds in Copenhagen – but he acknowledged that he was relying too heavily on cunning alone to try to compete with Kittel.
"I didn't feel like I had power in my legs. I got where I was because of jumping about and finding wheels in the last 500 metres," Cavendish said. "It might have been different if I hadn't been so far back, but I don't think I was going to win the stage today. Quick-Step were the strongest team for sure in the final."
Placing fourth in the first of a potential nine sprint finishes would ordinarily be grounds for optimism for a man with such a limited diet of racing in the build-up to the Tour. Cavendish warned against the assumption that he has a margin for improvement over the coming three weeks, and pointed out that he is still at the mercy of the vagaries of glandular fever.
"I'm pretty far off, I think," Cavendish said. "It's hard to tell after one stage. I might be alright next week, I might be alright in six months. A lot of guys came up to me today and asked me, 'How have you managed to be here?' Some guys who've had Epstein-Barr virus said, 'It was a year before I felt normal again.'
"This doesn't make me optimistic to get results here, but it does make me optimistic that I can get decent results while I'm ill, or while I've still got the virus in my system. There's nothing that happened in the sprint that gives me an excuse for why I didn't win. It's simply I'm not good enough and I think I'm not good enough because of the illness. I'm not hitting near the numbers I was hitting last year. But that wasn't expected, so to get fourth, I'm very happy."
It would have been understandable had Cavendish opted to forgo the Tour in order to continue his recovery from glandular fever, particularly when he is, by own admission, some way short of the form that carried him to four stage victories at last year's race. The prospect of one day overhauling Eddy Merckx's all-time record of 34 stages is a compelling one, and missing out on this year's race would, of course, draw him no nearer to that mark.
"At the end of the day, it's more than optimistic thinking to think I'm going to win anything here, but I've got a better chance of winning if I'm here than if I'm sat at home," Cavendish said. "So I may as well try."