Mark Cavendish laid down an early-season marker on Monday when the Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl rider sprinted to victory at the end of the 173-kilometre second stage of the UAE Tour in Abu Dhabi.
After missing out on the chance to sprint for victory on Sunday, the Briton took his first win on only the second day of the WorldTour season – and second of the year – as the race for Tour de France slots within the Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl squad heats up.
Despite having won four stages at last year’s Tour de France, it has been reported in the Belgian media that Fabio Jakobsen, who has already won four races this year, is the favoured sprinter of general manager Patrick Lefevre with the Dutchman pencilled in for a slot at the world’s biggest bike race. However, with a world-class field of sprinters on show at the UAE Tour, Cavendish’s impressive win will have come as a huge boost.
On a day that was dominated by strong winds, that led to the riders almost coming to a standstill as they were battered by waves of sand, it was perhaps fitting that the stage was won by one of the shortest sprinters – and most aerodynamic – in the peloton. Hitting out from some distance out, the 36-year-old overhauled former team-mate Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) before edging into the lead. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) countered, but was unable to match Cavendish, who held on all the way to the line where he took the win by half a wheel.
“I’m just happy, you know,” Cavendish said. “I knew we could win here. A third of the team are first-year professionals so this is the first or second race in their career – they were super professional today.
“Their job was to get me to the final with me feeling as fresh as possible and they did it so well that I was able to launch with 300 to 350 metres to go into a headwind. I’m happy I could hold off Philipsen.”
The UAE Tour continues on Tuesday with short 9km time trial, before Wednesday’s mountainous stage which is expected to cause a dramatic shake-up in the general classification. Two more stages are expected to favour the sprinters – Thursday and Friday – before the race concludes on Saturday with a second uphill finish of the seven-day race.
Stage one: Philipsen triumphs after hectic finale
Sunday February 20 – Madinat Zayed to Madinat Zayed, 184km
Jasper Philipsen claimed the first WorldTour race of the season at the UAE Tour on Sunday when the Alpecin-Fenix rider won a fiercely contested sprint ahead of Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers)
Other than a five-man breakaway that was reined in just under 20 kilometres from the end of the 184km stage that started and finished in Madinat Zayed, and a small crash in the peloton that resulted in Rick Zabel (Israel-Premier Tech) hitting the deck, it was a largely uneventful day of racing. Uneventful, that is, until the pace ratcheted up and the sprinters came to the fore.
With a packed field of world-class sprinters at the UAE Tour, it will have surprised few to see Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl riding on the front in the final kilometres in an effort to guide Mark Cavendish towards his second win of the year – the Briton took a stage at this month’s Tour of Oman. The Belgian squad, however, eased off the pace allowing BikeExchange-Jayco to replace them at the tip of an arrow-head formation.
As the packed bunch neared the line Dylan Groenewegen, who joined BikeExchange-Jayco from Jumbo-Visma during the close window, appeared to be in the boxseat for the stage win. But the Dutchman’s lead-out train uncoupled itself in what turned out to be a frenetic finale.
Cavendish, who sounded relaxed in an interview with Eurosport ahead of the stage, appeared to lose half a pedal stroke as he looked to get crowded out the final metres as he was slightly nudged off course, while Groenewegen found himself squeezed towards the right-hand barrier by Philipsen who held on to take the victory in his first outing of the year.