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Dash of winter brings Cavendish close at Milan-San Remo

After spending the early months of the season writing off his chances of Milan-San Remo victory, a sharp blast of winter suddenly brought Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) bounding back into contention at La Primavera.

Heavy snowfall around the 100 kilometre mark meant that the riders climbed the steps of their team buses instead of the ascents of the Turchino and Le Manie, as the race was neutralised and the peloton shuttled ahead to an ad hoc second start over two hours later at Arenzano.

The unusual measure ironed out two of the most significant creases on the road to San Remo, and Cavendish was primed to try and take advantage. Although the Manxman ultimately finished the day in 9th place, he came away from his Italian excursion with few regrets after his best showing in La Classicissima since he won on his debut in 2009.

“Definitely, without Le Manie it made my chances easier,” Cavendish said as he sat on the steps of his team bus afterwards. “We gave it everything. I had support from all the guys. We didn’t come away with the win but we’re still happy with how we stuck to the plan.”

While the elimination of Le Manie – the graveyard of Cavendish’s ambitions in recent years – had sharpened his motivation ahead of the re-start, that boon was tempered by the fact that he had lost three of his Omega Pharma-QuickStep teammates. With one eye firmly fixed on the cobbled classics, Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh opted to stay aboard the bus after the lengthy stoppage.

The fierce pace-making of Cannondale after the resumption complicated things still further, as it left Cavendish with only Sylvain Chavanel for company as the reduced peloton hit the penultimate climb of the Cipressa, but when the Frenchman ghosted off the front after the descent, Cavendish looked to save his legs as best he could behind.

“We didn’t have anyone else in the group but we were in the perfect position with Chavanel on the front anyway,” Cavendish said. “We had it perfect and we’re happy with our tactics because we had Chava in front and I didn’t have to ride behind because of that. It didn’t pay off but we stuck to the plan as best we could.”

Pre-race whispers of Cavendish’s relative comfort on the climbs at Tirreno-Adriatico last week were born out by the way he held onto the diminishing main group on the Cipressa and the Poggio, although he admitted that the conditions had aided him.

“I don’t have any problems getting over the Poggio but I was lucky there was a headwind on the Cipressa, because anytime there’s a headwind up there it gives me a chance to get over it. I rode to what I knew I could sustain up there and I was able to stay with them over the top.”

Once Peter Sagan (Cannondale) leapt across to Chavanel’s group over the top of the Poggio and brought Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) with him, however, the chances of a mass finish evaporated, and instead it was Cavendish’s old teammate Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) who claimed a surprise victory from the resulting seven-man sprint.

Originally viewed as equally exciting prospects during their time in the T-Mobile/Highroad stable, their career paths had diverged dramatically in recent years but Ciolek has ridden with a visibly renewed vigour since joining MTN-Qhubeka in the off-season.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” Cavendish said. “He’s incredible, he was the under-23 world champion and he’s one of the most talented bike riders I know. He’s lost a few years but he’s definitely come back this year and won a few races. He’s a super good guy as well, so I’m really happy for him.”

It was, of course, a singular edition of Milan-San Remo, reduced to 246 kilometres and with an unprecedented bus transfer interrupting proceedings for over two hours. Cavendish’s teammate Tom Boonen was deeply critical of the race organisers for not having had the foresight to remove the Turchino and re-route the race before it started.

“I agree. There was no point cancelling the race but they knew it was snowing, so the ideal thing would probably have been to start where we did the second time [Arenzano],” said Cavendish, smiling at the memory of the conditions on the frigid approach to the Turchino. “I’d never raced in snow before, and I’ve never been actually moaning from the cold during a race before.”

After enduring wintry conditions on the Italian Riviera, Cavendish is now eyeing a day in the sun on northern roads. “We’ve got Gent-Wevelgem next week and we can definitely take confidence from today,” he said quietly, before clambering back aboard the team bus.

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