The QuickStep-AlphaVinyl sprinter finished the 138-kilometre stage with the quickest final burst to the line but started further back than his Colombian rival, who was delivered to the front by his veteran lead-out man Max Richeze.
On the windy uphill finish of stage 1 at the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, Cavendish managed to sweep past 23-year-old Australian Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco) in the closing metres of a hectic finish but just ran out of metres before he could reach Gaviria.
Having said before the race that he couldn't be sure of his form until he tested himself against other sprinters in a race situation, Cavendish said afterwards that it was good to get back to competition almost four months after his last race at the British National Championships in October.
"Coming into the first race of a new season, you are never sure about form and it was good to get the feeling of racing back in my legs," he said.
"I felt good throughout the stage and the speed was good at the end, but I was just in the wrong position which meant I had to come around the outside and catching Fernando was just that bit too much."
It was a promising start to the season considering Cavendish suffered two broken ribs and a punctured lung at the Gent Six Day in November and his recovery pushed his training back.
Cavendish is accompanied in Oman by GC leader Fausto Masnada and neo-pro Stan Van Tricht as well as Iljo Keisse, Stijn Steels, and new signing Mauro Schmid rather than the team's peloton-leading sprint train of Michael Mørkøv and Tim Declercq.
The Manxman acknowledged that he was among a group of riders who haven't yet enjoyed much experience of racing together. However, he added that the stage 1 result – and his good legs – are something he and the team can build on in the coming days, which include a further two chances for sprint finishes, including Friday's second stage to Suhar Corniche.
"I am confident that I have some good form and we have a group that have not raced together, so we will look to build on it in the coming days," he concluded.
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.