Dimension Data's Steve Cummings saw the white blur out of the corner of his eye, and that was his cue to stop pedalling. Mathieu van der Poel's stunning sprint ended his hopes of victory 100 agonising metres from the finish line of the opening stage of the Arctic Race of Norway, but there was no real sense of disappointment from the British rider.
"I wasn't really thinking – I was just thinking about going full, and that's it," Cummings told Cyclingnews in Svolvaer on Thursday. "But it's nice to be back in the front, trying, feeling good."
That, indeed, hasn't happened for a while.
Cummings enjoyed something of a mid-30's rejuvenation when he signed for Dimension Data in 2015 and proceeded to win two stages of the Tour de France among a string of eye-catching breakaway scalps. However, things have veered off track in the past two years.
The 38-year-old hasn't won a race since 2017, and rarely has he even been in a position to win one. In 2018, he was set back by injury and illness – not just to himself but to teammates, and the knock-on effects that saw him plugging holes in the race schedule. This year, it has been more of the same – a broken collarbone at the Tour of the Basque Country and sickness at the Criterium du Dauphine.
"That's cycling – I'm not alone. I'm perhaps not as talented as other people, so if i'm going to win, I'm reliant on being super-fit and super-well-prepared," Cummings said. "If you get sick or injured, it throws you off, and it's difficult to get back."
When he was named in Dimension Data's squad for this year's Tour de France, Cummings described himself as "surprised" in the team's own press release.
"Pretty average," is his succinct assessment now of what was three weeks spent largely at the back of the peloton.
"For the Tour, you have to bring yourself to another level that isn't really, for me, sustainable for a long period of time," he said. "You have to eat very little and train a lot, and you can't live like that – you'd end up with a divorce or something. You need to be focused for months… And, yeah, I wasn't as prepared as I could have been, and then you just get found out. That's how it is."
That said, something good did come of the Tour: form.
"After the Tour, I got a confidence boost because I felt I was getting better. I was looking at riders around me, really good riders, who were stopped in the road, and I was feeling better and better. That gave me confidence in my own engine, so I was happy.
"I came out of the Tour feeling pretty good," he continued. "Then I went home, had a rest, and then trained really well, and I feel pretty good now."
The opening stage of the Arctic Race of Norway saw Cummings among the chief aggressors on a stage that was billed as a bunch sprint but turned out to be full-gas racing from the flag. He formed part of a 33-rider front group when the peloton split with more than 100km to go and was first to the top of all three categorised climbs. For that, he earned himself the 'king of the mountains' jersey and a giant inflatable salmon, but it could have been more, as he went solo with 5km to go, only to be caught in the dying moments.
It wasn't to be, but the day as a whole was nevertheless cause for optimism, not least in the context of his current situation. Cummings is 38 and out of contract at the end of the year, with nothing yet in place for 2020.
"I don't know. I have to try to find a contract, I guess. Or stop, I don't know – you tell me," he said when asked about his future, acknowledging that retirement had crossed his mind.
"I just want to finish the season well, and if I finish well and I feel like, like today, 'Oh yeah, I'm still racing well," then I would like to carry on. But if I'm useless, there's no point carrying on."
After Norway, Cummings will ride the Tour of Britain in the second week of September, followed by some autumn Italian Classics and the Tour of Guangxi.
"I just want to finish the season as best I can and concentrate 100 per cent on what's left, and race with opportunity," he said. "Every race is an opportunity."
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