Making it three in a row, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) won the fifth and penultimate stage of the Tour of Qatar and is now poised to claim the overall title, for what would be the second and biggest stage race victory of his professional career.
It was the closest of his three wins, with Ag2r's Belarusian sprinter Yauheni Hutarovich finishing fast and almost catching him on the line. "It was the most unpredictable one," said Cavendish.
"This stage is always unpredictable, but I knew from last year if we could get through this then we're in with a very good chance of winning the Tour of Qatar."
It was a stage in which his new team earned their stripes. "We wanted to control it from the beginning," said Cavendish, "and the guys stayed at the front from the start and controlled it, controlled it, controlled it."
A surprise early two-man move featured Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky, though his escape didn't last too long. Finally a five-man break went clear, including Martin Elmigar, the IAM rider who was second on stage one.
"Everybody wanted to be in the break so it was hard," explained Cavendish, "then when it went we hit a crosswind so I had to be surrounded by four or five guys. They're big guys and they surrounded me the whole day, so I never felt the wind at all.
"They rode perfect. They timed every catch perfect; they led me into every corner perfect; and finally they gave me a leadout that was perfect. It was as though they've been doing it for years."
It was the cleanest of the three bunch sprints, and the first in which the Omega Pharma-Quick-step ‘train' has been fully operational. "I've always had full commitment from these guys the last few days," said Cavendish, "but we didn't really have a chance, it was so chaotic. Finally today we rode as a unit and I was so proud to be at the back of them. I didn't really have to do anything. I was delivered."
In the intermediate sprint, with two laps of a 14km finishing circuit remaining, Cavendish won the time bonus ahead of Bernhard Eisel (Team Sky) and Taylor Phinney (BMC), who both remain in contention overall.
Cavendish's teammate Niki Terpstra was also up there, and in sprinting this quartet clipped off the front of the bunch. But while Cavendish immediately sat up - despite Terpstra urging him to persist with the move - the others carried on, with Terpstra a passenger.
Behind the Eisel-Phinney escape there was no panic, and, once they were caught, Terpstra reverted to lead-out man, second last man in the OPQS train. It was a fast, tailwind-assisted finish, and Cavendish left his final effort late -- almost too late judging by Hutarovich's finishing speed.
"I'm really happy with that," said Cavendish. "Also, it's Mr Bakala's birthday today." Zdeněk Bakala is the Czech billionaire owner of his team. Cavendish continued: "What do you get the guy who has everything? As a cyclist, probably a win is the best thing, so happy birthday to him."
Having previously won stages but never challenged for the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, Cavendish suggested the main difference this year is that "Tom's not here" -- meaning his teammate Tom Boonen.
"I was texting him last night, and he said, ‘bring it home,'" said Cavendish. "I said that's easy for him to say, but I can't finish in a three-man move like he can. I was a bit nervous actually. But I got a few tips from him. And today I had a say in tactics, and I said we had to control it the whole day."
The plan will be the same on Friday's final stage, from the Sealine beach resort back to Doha, with several laps of the Corniche to end the race. With a 15-second buffer between him and second-placed Brent Bookwalter, Cavendish only needs to finish safely in the bunch. But after crashing heavily in the final 200 metres of this stage last year, few would bet against him claiming his fourth win on the Corniche to put a golden seal on the overall title.
Tour of Qatar 2013, stage five: Al Zubara Fort to Madinat Al Shamal, 154 km
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2. Yauheni Hutarovich (Blr) Ag2r
3. Aidis Kruopis (Ltu) Orica-GreenEdge
4. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing
5. Luke Rowe (GBr) Sky
6. John Degenkolb (Ger) Argos-Shimano
7. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha
8. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ
9. Heinrich Haussler (Aus) IAM Cycling
10. Roger Kluge (Ger) NetApp-Endura all same time
Overall classification after stage five
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 10-20-01
2. Brent Bookwalter (USA) BMC Racing at 15 secs
3. Taylor Phinney (USA) BMC Racing at 20 secs
4. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing at 22 secs
5. Bernhard Eisel (Aut) Sky at 24 secs
6. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing at 25 secs
7. Michael Schar (Swi) BMC Racing at 25 secs
8. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky at 29 secs
9. Luke Rowe (GBr) Sky at 30 secs
10. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky at 30 secs
Bernhard Eisel and Taylor Phinney at the front of the day's escape group
Three in a row for Mark Cavendish
Mark Cavendish in the overall lead
Tour of Qatar 2013: Preview and coverage
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