Mark Cavendish came within a whisker of securing his highest profile win of 2013 to date in the Tour of Qatar today when he pounded across the finishing line on the windswept road at Dukhan beach in sixth place.
On an eventful 145-kilometre trek north and west across the Qatar peninsula in gale force winds and even the odd sandstorm, Cavendish, clad in the blue and grey of his new team, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, had nothing to reproach himself for his near miss. The Manxman had been in the thick of the action from the gun, taking part in an early break of 14, then as the peloton splintered on Qatar's broad motorways, staying close to the first of six waves of riders that formed. A late three-man breakaway, though, was only engulfed by a front bunch of some three dozen riders, including Cavendish, in the closing metres of the finishing straight. In the chaotic mass dash that followed fractions of a second later he was – despite his earlier efforts – still very much in the mix.
Cavendish has already raced this year for his Belgian team, snatching a first win in January on stage one of the Tour de San Luis in Argentina. But Qatar's harsher weather and a field packed with riders honing their form for the fast-upcoming Classics make the Middle East's premier stage race his first major test of how he is adapting to his new squad in 2013.
"At Qatar he and his team are all moving up a big notch compared to Argentina. We're not putting any pressure on him, it's all about getting the season started," says Danish ex-pro Brian Holm, one of Cavendish's sports directors at Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and previously with him in the HTC- Highroad squad. "If he can win a stage here that'll be great, if he can get two even better. But he could come home with nothing – that's life and that's cycling"
Holm estimates that building a leadout train – the long line of team-mates that protected and guided Cavendish to the ideal blast-off position for victory in his former HTC squad, and almost always one of the most complex areas to handle when a sprinter comes into a new team – could take "up to a year to construct".
"We'll make some big mistakes for sure. Even in the Giro and probably in the first stage of the Tour," Holm said. "But time will go by and for sure it's going to get better and better. Our experience with Cavendish is that riders really step up a level when they race with him, he makes them stronger."
Qatar's ultra-flat network of desert roads is a notoriously tricky testing ground for sprinters and their teams, with its strongly gusting desert winds and highly exposed terrains leaving no hiding place. With riders champing at the bit for action after the winter break, Qatar's sprints tend to be exceptionally boisterous, chaotic affairs, with crashes a regular feature.
Cavendish has taken four stages at Qatar in his career, including two in 2012, and Omega Pharma- Quick Step have won five of the last seven editions of the race, but rivals recognised that yesterday's desert battle for his fifth personal victory there was an exceptionally tough challenge.
"The last 20 kilometres were particularly hard," said a dust-grimed Ian Stannard of Cavendish's former team, Sky. "It kind of turned into a stalemate. Quick Step had to work to get him up there, but Cavendish is always up for a sprint." Following today's team time trial, his next chance should come as soon as tomorrow.
* Bradley Wiggins completed his first day's racing of 2013 yesterday in stage one of the Tour of Mallorca with a trip to the winner's podium after he netted the award for "Most Combative Rider". Wiggins finished 161st on the stage, won by Belgian Kenny Dehaes.