Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) was a man of few words at the stage 6 summit finish on Mt. Baldy at the Amgen Tour of California on Friday. Shivering from the cold as he wrestled with putting on warmer layers, surrounded by riders that finished in the gruppetto and standing at a dead end road full of journalists, he offered a few remarks about his performance at the seven-day race set to conclude in Pasadena on Saturday.
"Yes, I feel OK, thank you. I've gotten through it," Cavendish told Cyclingnews, referring to his recovery from a lengthy struggle with the Epstein-Barr Virus.
"It's been a hard week," he added.
To say that Cavendish has had a challenge at this edition of the Tour of California would be an understatement, and not just for him, but for many riders. It was considered one of the more challenging editions of its 14-year history, covering almost 21,000 metres of elevation gain, with 25 King of the Mountain (KOM) climbs and a summit finish on Mt. Baldy. In addition, more than half of the stages were over 200km.
Doctors first diagnosed Cavendish with Epstein-Barr in 2017, but a recent blood test showed that he was below the threshold for being sick with the virus. He came into the Tour of California upbeat about his health, and told the media at the opening press conference that he was looking forward to being able to challenge for victories again.
Having raced five stage races this spring, which includes not finishing Paris-Nice, he was clear in his interviews that he was not in top condition for the Tour of California. However, he was optimistic that he might be able to sprint for victory in Sacramento on stage 1 – a stage finish he has won at on three previous occasions.
Cavendish wasn't among the team lead-outs to contest the final on the circuits in Sacramento, and he ended up finishing 30 seconds down. He then lost contact with the main field on stage 2 and finished half an hour down, but still within the time limit in South Lake Tahoe. He acknowledged the mountainous stage in a post on Twitter, in which he wrote: "Well glad that day's out the way! Always the stage I dread most in the cycling season."
Except for stage 4 into Morro Bay, where he finished with the main field, he lost time on each stage, but always had support from his teammate Bernhard Eisel. He told Cyclingnews that throughout the week of racing, and with all the climbing, he felt as though he was gaining strength.
"I think I'm improving here, yeah," Cavendish said.
Cavendish has won 10 stages of the Tour of California. That tally is second only to Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who notched up his 17th stage win in Sacramento.
The race will end with stage 7's 126km stage, which starts in Santa Clarita and travels over the Angeles Forest Highway summit before dropping down into Pasadena, although it may not be a finale for the sprinters given the mid-stage climb.
Adding an 11th stage victory might therefore not be on the cards for Cavendish, especially given that he has only just recovered from the Epstein-Barr Virus. However, he remains somewhere between hesitant and hopeful that if he's in the front group at the end of the stage, he might be able to contest a potential sprint at the Rose Bowl Stadium on Saturday.
"I don't know. I hope so… If I get there, we'll see," Cavendish said.