A widely hoped-for debut victory for his new squad, Sky, in 2012 could probably not have been further from Mark Cavendish's mind during yesterday's stage of the Tour of Qatar, with the reigning world champion still suffering badly from the after-effects of a fever-inducing bug caught during his flight out to the Middle East.
Visibly exhausted from the 95-mile effort across Qatar's windswept, dusty deserts, a grey-looking Cavendish completed his first race of 2012 in the main pack, but in an unusually lowly 49th place. Then, while the noisy celebrations for the Belgian stage winner, Tom Boonen, and young British runner-up, Adam Blythe, continued, a stone's throw away Cavendish was plonked on the rear bumper of his team car, drained and trying to recover.
"For him, it was just important to survive today," his team-mate Bernie Eisel said. "He was absolutely dead yesterday. We achieved that, and that's what matters."
"Cav's OK; he's better than he thought he would be, but it was never the plan to try and win with him today," said Sky's road coach, Rod Ellingworth.
Ellingworth said the fact that all eight Sky riders had made it into the front group when the bunch had split briefly in Qatar's notoriously tough crosswinds was "the most encouraging news of the day". And after months of building his form in training camps in Mallorca, there is no doubt whatsoever about Cavendish's underlying race condition. The problem is that he has been pole-axed by a bug.
He spent all day Saturday in bed, for what he called "13 hours of sweat-drenched sleep" and skipped training. Sky confirmed he was taking part just three hours before the stage began. He was nonetheless in an upbeat mood at the start, signing autographs, posing for photographs and assuring journalists he felt "much better".
The fact that the Tour of Qatar is a singularly unpretentious race and that it offers such warm weather, far from the high-pressure European scene, probably helped lower Cavendish's stress levels. In more traditional races, the ritual "signing-on" can be a hugely hyped-up procedure complete with bellowing race commentators, rock bands playing as each rider approaches and (in heartlands such as Belgium) vast cheering crowds. In the equivalent process in Qatar, where riders almost invariably outnumber the fans at the more out-of-the way starts and finishes, the cyclists scrawl their names on pieces of paper on a folding picnic table in front of a "crowd" of two race officials. All in balmy 20C heat. Pleasant as the start was, an exacting four-hour grind through dusty, dry conditions at a high average speed of nearly 45kph took its toll yesterday on Cavendish. The Manxman will be thankful that today's team time trial, just 11km long, is far less challenging.
Tough starts to the year are not uncommon for Cavendish. In 2010, an infected tooth from an off-season operation all but wrecked his spring. In 2011, he crashed heavily at the early-season Tour Down Under in Australia and again in Qatar. The next few days will show whether Cavendish's race debut – in the year in which he will be challenging for Britain's first Olympic gold this summer – has gone askew for a third time running.