Abu Dhabi Tour ambassador Mark Cavendish won Stage 2 in the capital yesterday in a thrilling bunch sprint that included more than 70 riders.
It was a stunning result for the Manx Missile, who not only claimed victory but shot into the overall lead, four seconds ahead of Italy’s Giacomo Nizzolo who won Stage 1.
In addition to usurping Nizzolo of the overall leader’s red jersey, the 31-year-old Team Dimension Data star also took hold of the green jersey for the points classification.
“I’m very happy to win here,” said Cavendish.
“I’m ambassador for the race and I got close yesterday (Thursday’s opening stage). I didn’t get the opportunity to race last year either because of my shoulder injury so I wanted to come here and be successful.
“To draw out a win was really good. We were in a difficult position towards the end but it was great and it shows the motivation we have which is sometimes hard to get toward the end of the season, so I’m happy we could do this and I could pay the team back with a win.”
All but 4km of the capital stage was dominated by a group of six early breakaway riders – led by Belgium’s Jens Keukeleire.
The Orica-BikeExchange rider was joined by Lampre-Merida pair Jan Polanc and Edward Ravasi, Minsk Cycling Club’s Stanislau Bazhkou, ONE Pro Cycling team-mates Dion Smith and Britain’s Samuel Williams, and Eugert Zhupa of Southeast Pro Cycling.
The group – minus Bazhkou who dropped back at the 95km mark – led right up until the final 350m before being caught by the peloton.
Cavendish passed Elia Viviani, who beat him to a gold medal on the track in the Olympic Games, with the Italian, who won two stages of the inaugural Tour year ago, finishing second.
There has been tension on the track between the two this year. Viviani won omnium gold in Rio despite Cavendish, who claimed silver, causing a crash early on that put Korean rider Sanghoon Park in hospital.
Team Sky rider Viviani, 27, had also questioned Cavendish and Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria’s tactics after he missed out on omnium gold and eventually finished fourth at the UCI Track World Championships in March.
Cavendish though denied any rift.
“I really like Elia, I have massive respect for Elia and I think he’s a great rider,” said Cavendish, who also curtly replied with a “No” when asked if yesterday’s victory was sweeter because it came against his Italian rival.
“If you win or lose races you get upset with some people but it doesn’t change opinions (of how good they are).”
Viviani, meanwhile, claimed he lost to possibly the best sprinter in cycling.
“He passed me really close on the line so congrats to him,” said Viviani.
“When I start the sprint from 200m to go, I know he is on wheel and I try to do a good progressing.
“Today we played a bit of poker – with six riders it’s too easy to lose riders and we don’t have any at the finish. We have a strong lead-out and only Cav of all the sprinters here can pass me on the line and he passed me here with 10m to the line.
“I do a good sprint, a good progression in last 200m, but we lose to one of the world’s best sprinters, maybe the best sprinter this year.”
New Zealand’s Smith kept hold of the white jersey for the best young rider after finishing 21st while the black intermediate sprint jersey went to early leader Keukeleire.
“I tried to increase the lead for the white jersey,” said the 23-year-old Smith. “The bonuses in the intermediate sprints really came first and I’m glad I gained three seconds on the way, so it was another good day for sure.
“But I had to keep sprinting once we got caught in the last kilometer in order to avoid time gaps with the top sprinters. I kept going as fast as I could and hoped for the best.
“(Today) I’ll try to get in a breakaway again to target more time bonus before the hard finish. I’m not sure if I’ll be right up there but I’ll give it a crack.”
Speaking after the stage finish, he said: “With 20km to go, when I saw the gap to the four breakaway riders was still so big, I decided to put one guy [Niccolo Bonifazio] to the front and it was the right thing to do.
“Everyone knows the big names that are in contention here so I’m obviously very happy to beat them.
“The temperature was quite high at the beginning of the race but coming from the World Championships, I was used to it, and after half way into the race, it was much better and not a problem for me.”
During the stage, 106 riders will compete for 36 Green Jersey Points and 16 Black Jersey Points as well as 16 seconds in time bonuses.
Stage 1 finishes at Madinat Zayed, the largest town and the administrative centre of Al Gharbia, the biggest and western-most region in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The prestigious end-of-season event, running between October 20-23, is organised by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council with the collaboration of RCS Sport.
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