Mark Cavendish reflects on painful day at Tour: 'I was looking at stars'

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RIMINI, Italy (Velo) – The first stage of the 2024 Tour de France was never going to be easy for Mark Cavendish, with more than 3,600 meters of elevation gain and seven categorized climbs on a saw-blade route between Florence and Rimini.

But when the leader of the Astana Kazakhstan team, Colle delle Faggi, collapsed on the first climb of the day, vomiting and falling five minutes behind the peloton, fears of the worst were natural.

The sport's most successful runners were at risk of either missing the time limit or quitting the race before even finishing, let alone completing the stage.

After breaking his collarbone in Bordeaux on his first retirement Tour 12 months ago, this was going to be another fairy tale story that swiftly turned evil, another failed round of the Tour. Surely not again?

However, you don’t win 34 stages in the Tour de France without immense strength, flexibility and experience, and Cavendish had to use all of these qualities to succeed throughout the day and ensure he stayed in the race for a record-setting 35th stage.

As the stage progressed, Cavendish and his four Astana teammates Bol, Ballerini, Fedorov and Morkov rode a steady pace, forming a group with Jonas Rickert (Alpecin-Deceuninck), as well as Team DSM-Firmenich postNL pair Fabio Jakobsen and Bram Velten.

The ride through the Emilia-Romagna hills was hot and difficult, but it became clear that while Cavendish was losing time, it was not going to stop him from making the Tour.

After 160km of the race, he arrived in Rimini less than 39 minutes behind winner Romain Bardet, yet was held up in the final metres by trusted lead-out man Michael Morkov on the team bus. The big question was whether he was suffering from illness or from the blistering temperatures of over 97F?

“I think it's just the heat,” he told media outside his team bus. “It's not easy. I always say: if your body is like mine now, don't start cycling because those days are gone. But we know what we're doing.”

“It was very tough, but we had a plan and we executed it. I wanted to do another climb with the peloton, but I was seeing stars, it was too hot. But I'm happy we got through it okay, and got to the second stage.”

Cavendish hopes to fight another day and explained how he and his team-mates calculate to ensure they don't have to return home behind schedule.

“We're not comfortable doing that. You figure out what the people ahead are going to do,” he said. “And then you figure out what you can do, what you have to do to get in under the time limit on each climb. It's a bit boring, but that's the way cycling is. If you're close to the time gap it makes for a good story, but time limits aren't really meant to put people out of the race, it's when people get sick and injured, right.”

“Mark, keep it up!” shouted one British fan from the crowd gathered around him when his interview ended. That's a certainty.

However, Cavendish's hopes of winning the bunch sprint stage suffered a setback as teammate Michele Gazzoli abandoned the race, becoming the race's first DNF. He said of the young Italian, “I hope he's OK.” According to team manager Alexander Vinokourov, the young Italian suffered heatstroke in the extreme heat.

Although it seemed that something was wrong with Cavendish's health, on speaking to him it was revealed that VeloVinokourov confirmed that Cavendish “is not sick. I knew it would be a difficult round for Marc, it was just not his day. He calculated the watts and the distance, and we did everything as expected.”

The Tour's first bunch sprint opportunity should come on Stage 3 in Turin, but the Tour's second day on Sunday is another day of gruppetto groveling for Cavendish and his fellow sprinters, including more than 1,900 meters and two late ascents of San Luca before the finish in Bologna.

Does Vinokourov have any concerns about Cavendish for tomorrow's stage? “Tomorrow is another day, we have to take it day by day. He has to recover today, we have already set our goal, our objective. And we are working on that,” he said.

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