Lining up the first sprint of a new season is always a complicated business and doing it at 2,500 metres above sea level only adds a layer of difficulty. Even so, the disappointment was palpable among Mark Cavendish’s Astana Qazaqstan squad after stage 1 of the Tour Colombia in Duitama as they filed their way through a corridor of fans towards their team van.
One local leant across a barrier and made energetic attempts to draw Cavendish’s attention – “Mark! Mark! Mark!” – but for the Manxman and his lead-out train, the defeat was still too raw. Only Alexey Lutsenko managed to raise a smile when the same fan eventually turned his efforts to serenading him instead: “Dale Alexey!”
In a frenzied finale on roads made treacherous by persistent rain – “Total chaos,” per winner Fernando Gaviria – Astana Qazaqstan’s initial plan hadn’t survived contact with the opposition, and Cavendish had to settle for third place in his first outing of the year.
It was also Michael Mørkøv‘s first race in Astana colours after he left QuickStep to re-enter Cavendish’s service over the winter. The Dane, by consensus the most skilled lead-out man in the peloton, has been in this game long enough to know that the occasional false start is an occupational hazard.
“We didn’t set it up like we hoped, we started a bit too early,” Mørkøv told Cyclingnews in Paipa on Wednesday. “Maybe it was a bit of nerves, the first race of the season. It was also a new configuration for the team. In the end, it was disappointing not to win the race because I really think we had the team and Mark had the sprint to win.”
There was, of course, mitigation for the result, even if Mørkøv was reluctant to cite altitude as an excuse. In the four-year history of this race, however, it’s telling that Colombian or Ecuadorian riders have claimed all but two of the stages. Although Mørkøv, Cavendish et al have been in Colombia since mid-January, there is a clear home-field advantage at this race.
“Of course, there’s a lot of unknowns here,” Mørkøv conceded. “We were at altitude but even though we’ve been here for three weeks, I still feel that I don’t get so much oxygen, so of course we were aware that we needed to be very careful coming into the sprint. And in the end, we obviously got beaten by a very, very fast Colombian…”
While altitude training has long been more or less de rigueur for general classification riders, sprinters have understandably been less inclined to head for the heights lest…