Mark Cavendish finds himself unexpectedly on the brink of a second overall victory at the Tour of Qatar after his Dimension Data teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen suffered a double puncture on the final lap of the finishing circuit at Madinal Al Shamal on Thursday.
The penultimate stage in windswept northern Qatar has traditionally seen the race splinter into echelons but for the most part, Thursday was something of collector’s item – a relatively calm day in the hinterland of Al Zubara fort.
The breeze did stiffen somewhat in the final hour of racing, and the bunch had begun to fragment under BMC’s impetus on the penultimate lap of the finishing circuit, but Boasson Hagen would surely have finished safely in the front group were it not for his misfortune.
Instead, a flotilla of Dimension Data riders desperately tried to steady the ship by dropping back to help the stricken Boasson Hagen, while Cavendish remained moored as best he could in a front group from which Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) would eventually cruise to sprint victory.
“I’m not too worried about the gold jersey right now, I’m majorly disappointed for Edvald. He was in such a good position,” Cavendish said after the podium ceremony. “The lads rode incredible all day and controlled it. We didn’t need to control it but we did. But unfortunately Edvald punctured with less than 10k to go. BMC and Lotto-Jumbo went straight to the front full gas as soon as they heard on the radio, so there was no chance of Edvald coming back.”
Cavendish began the day in second place overall, 26 seconds down on Boasson Hagen, and while he did enough to ensure the gold jersey remained in the team, he had to settle for fifth place in the sprint behind Kristoff after he was left isolated in the finale.
“We knew that would handicap the sprint because in a full crosswind, you need to be kept out of the gutter,” Cavendish said. “Like, I was on Michael Schär’s wheel in the crosswind and he kept losing the wheel in front, so you’ve got to keep coming around and you’re never going to be able to compete in the end, so you’ve got to limit your losses. But it was the right decision for everyone to ride with Edvald. Even I didn’t win the stage, I was going to be in gold.”
Katusha’s Michael Mørkøv, Viacheslav Kuznetsov and Jacopo Guarnieri provided a pitch-perfect lead-out for Kristoff in the final two kilometres, at which point Cavendish was battling simply to stay on their wheels in the crosswind. He was forced to start his sprint from too far back to entertain any realistic hopes of winning and even his pursuit of the bonus seconds on offer for a third-place finish proved forlorn.
“It was always going to be difficult to win in the crosswind. Alone, you’ve just got to limit your losses and not lose time,” he said. “If you’re on your own in the gutter, you can lose a few seconds in 500 metres, so I had to make sure I didn’t lose any time. Ok, the time bonuses would be alright, but if they got the times bonuses and there was a gap, then we’d lose everything.”
The general classification has tightened considerably as a result of Boasson Hagen’s travails. Cavendish now holds a lead of two seconds over Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) with Manuel Quinziato a further four seconds back in third, while Kristoff remains within striking distance, too, just nine seconds down in fourth overall.
With a maximum of 16 bonus seconds on offer during Friday’s final stage to Doha’s Corniche, the race for final overall victory is far from over, though Dimension Data directeur sportif Roger Hammond sounded a bullish note on Thursday evening.
“I mean, two seconds, who would you prefer to have?” he said. “Greg Van Avermaet two seconds behind or Mark Cavendish two seconds ahead? I know which one I’d go for.”