With two impressive stage wins already in his saddlebag, Mark Cavendish had seemed unstoppable in this year's Tour of Qatar – until he suffered a major crash and went flying over his bike's handlebars at 70kph (44mph) in the final stretch of the last day's racing.
The reigning world champion was the only rider to go down in the maximum speed crash, which was apparently caused by two others accelerating for a full-on sprint, around 125 yards from the line. When the cameras panned in on Cavendish's inert, twisted form, lying huddled on the side of the road, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath from the crowds on Doha's seafront.
Fortunately, that was as bad as it got. The Sky leader was quickly helped to his feet by two team-mates and, although a shade groggy, with his helmet destroyed and the back of his jersey shredded, he managed to get back on a replacement bike.
The crowd applauded him as he gingerly pedalled across the finish line in 104th place and again when, after a lengthy inspection by a doctor as he sat in the front seat of a car, watched by dozens of rubber-necking fans and journalists, he changed jerseys and rode off to the team hotel, some 15 kilometres away.
"I'm OK, I hurt the back of my head, but I'm all right," Cavendish told The Independent. Team Sky's road coach, Rod Ellingworth, added: "He's taken a good clouting, so he feels like his neck is a bit stiff. He's got some cuts and bruises, too, but nothing serious. He'll have almost the whole day [Saturday] in the hotel to rest up before we fly out of Qatar".
That flight will take Cavendish to his next race, the Tour of Oman, which starts next Tuesday. "It looked far worse when I saw him lying there, but then he started to move," the Sky rider Jeremy Hunt said. Ellingworth said he believed the crash had not been caused "maliciously" but that it had been "just a race incident where everything came together for it to happen".
However, Hunt and his team-mate Bernie Eisel agreed that Qatar's finishes were – partly because of the race's unremitting flatness – particularly prone to danger. Cavendish's last bad crash, in fact, happened here last year, in the opening prologue. "They changed the route direction this year on the final stage, but it was still carnage," Eisel said. Hunt added: "There's so many strong teams and it's a really fast course. It must be the only event in the world where it's so fast you can't get a 'leadout train' going." That is the technical term for the line of team-mates in the final kilometres who normally shelter Cavendish from such crashes.
Another reigning world champion, 20-year-old Arnaud Démare, who won the Under-23 World Championship event last year in Denmark, blasted home to take the stage. If Démare was delighted with his first professional win in his first race at that level, Team Sky were just glad to celebrate Cavendish's lucky escape.