The Manxman was forced to sit up and watch in the final 200 metres as his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl lead-out train - so dominant here 12 months ago - was derailed.
It was a messy run-in, with the winner Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) saying the chaos was “indescribable”. The final couple of kilometres were complicated further by a crash that brought down Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates).
Cavendish declined to speak to reporters at the team bus in De Panne, but lead-out man Michael Mørkøv told Cyclingnews that positioning was a factor.
“It was obviously a bit of a messy sprint. Cav and I had to come from a bit far, and we got a bit boxed in,” he said. “We knew it was difficult to come from behind.”
Although QuickStep’s own race recap on their website suggested the Ackermann crash put paid to Cavendish’s chances, the former world champion appeared to pass through unscathed and in the same position he was leading into the corner, even if he was a way off the front.
There was an attempt to move him back up but it didn’t come off. With Jannik Steimle in second wheel, Bert Van Lerberghe started to move up inside the final kilometre. At first, Mørkøv and Cavendish were in the wheel and following the Belgian up, but they got squeezed off and had to hang back as Van Lerberghe reached the front.
From there, Steimle and Van Lerberghe went through their normal lead-out duties, perhaps unaware that the sprinter and the last man were disconnected, several places further down the pack. As Steimle peeled off, he looked around and bashed his handlebars in frustration.
Van Lerberghe then effectively led out the sprint, as Mørkøv tried to plot a way through the spreading bunch. Cavendish followed at first but with 250 metres he made the decision to sit up and roll home. Mørkøv was ultimately the team’s top finisher in 12th.
“Cav got squeezed so he didn’t really have a shot at it,” Morkov said. “It was a hard fight today, with a very difficult finish here. It was not our race in the end.
“[The mood on the bus] is not good. Last year, it was obviously better when we won the race. We’re disappointed.”
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.