Mark Cavendish was simply happy to be back racing at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina last week. The pleasure of pinning on a number again and being in the peloton was a timely reminder of why he loves racing, after months spent slowly recovering from a second flare-up of the Epstein-Barr virus.
Yet, despite being on a gradual comeback trajectory, Cavendish could not resist going for victory on the final stage of the Vuelta a San Juan on Sunday. Only a slow puncture and a hectic fight for Peter Sagan’s wheel stopped him fighting for a podium spot and he eased up in the final metres to finish 12th behind stage winner Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Cavendish makes it clear results are not important for the first three months of 2019 but his return to racing naturally inspires him.
"It’s nice to gradually get back into it, and enjoy it, more than anything. I went from being nervous to enjoying it. We had a good go there in the last sprint and my numbers were really good, despite having a soft tyre," he said.
"In the last few days, I’ve realised why I ride a bike, because I love it [racing] like everyone. Once you enjoy it, it makes you appreciate it."
Cavendish suffered in the near 40C temperatures of the opening stages of the Vuelta a San Juan but has felt better stage after stage. He had avoided speaking to the media on the race, preferring to avoid the spotlight and gradually find his racing legs and his confidence.
"Each day gets better, it always does," he explained.
"It’s not been the hardest race, that’s the great thing about this South American race, the organisers always do a good job. With the WorldTour and everyone peaking for Australia and with everything televised, nobody can really run into the season. Here, there’s minimum TV and that lowers expectations. That ultimately does them a service because they get the biggest riders in the world here. I think people in South America love cycling, so it’s good for the racing."
The Epstein-Barr virus first forced Cavendish to rest and avoid racing in the spring of 2017. He returned in the summer after three months out, but then crashed out of the Tour de France after his famous clash with Peter Sagan on stage 4 to Vittel. He raced in the final months of 2017 and the first part of 2018 but crashes at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo left him battered and bruised. He fought back to be fit for the Tour de France, but the Epstein-Barr virus had already flared up again.
He admits his diagnosis could have been better and is now much more careful with his training and undergoes monthly blood tests.
"I’ve got to make sure there’s not a trend with the virus. It’s hard because a lot of people don’t understand it, they think you’re ill or you're not ill. But it hangs around forever; I’ve had it forever. I just have to make sure it doesn’t flare up," he explained.
"We’ve been trying to find another case where someone has had it for that long but it’s hard to find. So, it’s hard to know where you approach it. But I’ve got a good group of people around me now, who can look after it."
Cavendish will next race at the UAE Tour. He is keen to keep expectations low as he gradually builds his form.
"Now I go back to Europe, see the family for a couple of days and then do some training in the mountains, that’s the only way I’m going to get fit. After that I’m off to the UAE Tour," he explained, confirming the personal sacrifices and nomadic life of modern-day riders.
"I'm going to race on feeling. I'm not expecting anything for the first three months of the season, that's for sure. I'll always try, and the team will support me to try, but there's no expectation to do anything. I’m only human at the end of the day."
Cavendish hopes to be back to his best for the Tour de France in July. After two years of fighting and recovering from Epstein-Barr virus, it seems to be the only reason that keeps him fighting.
"I hope so, but we'll see," he said cautiously. "I believe so, otherwise I wouldn’t be here."