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Mark Cavendish: Tom Boonen’s leadout man

The Omega Pharma men have reversed their roles in Argentina and nearly landed a stage win on Wednesday's winding, windy finale

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JUANA KOSLEY, Argentina (VN) — In Wednesday’s stage 3 bunch sprint at the Tour de San Luís, cycling fans and spectators alike were surprised by two startling facts — first, that Mark Cavendish didn’t win the sprint, and second, that Cavendish was not even the first Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider across the line.

Instead, it was Belgian classics star Tom Boonen coming across in third place, behind stage winner Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing) and Francisco Ventoso (Movistar). Cavendish rolled across the line in 13th place.

Of course Boonen is no stranger to field sprints; he’s won on the Champs Élysées, a world road championship, and Gent-Wevelgem, all from bunch sprints, and he was the Tour de France green jersey in 2007. But at Omega Pharma, he’s not the fastest man on the team — or even in this race.

The British champion explained why he rode as a leadout man for the first time in years. “My goals aren’t until July, and Tom’s form is going really good,” Cavendish said. “It’s possible for him to get a win here, really, and it would be good for his head — and he’s really strong right now. You can see it when he’s pulling. It’s fine to do, and we’re working quite well.”

“Quite well” wasn’t quite good enough on a winding, windy run-in to the line on Wednesday.

“I just tried to stay with the Lampre train; they’re most well-drilled train here, so I looked to stay with them until 300 [meters], and then drop Tom off at 150 [meters] … but the wind was weird, it was coming from the back-left, and the road curved to the left, so we had to leave it open,” Cavendish said. “Nizzolo is just fast, too, so we can’t be too bothered. Things went well. It was nice, me and Tom working together.”

Though the stage 1 course profile was perfect for a bunch sprint, it never materialized; a stalemate developed when every team in the peloton looked to Omega Pharma to bring back a five-man breakaway.

When the Belgian squad sat up and called the collective bluff of every other team in the race, the time gap to the five men up the road ballooned to 10 minutes. Race leader Phil Gaimon (Garmin-Sharp) benefited the most, with a stage win and what may end up being the overall victory.

Even without the opportunity to sprint on stage 1, Boonen, who took the start of San Luís looking tan and lean, has shown that he came to Argentina meaning business.

The big Belgian took to the front of the peloton for a 10km pull on stage 2, providing welcome relief to Garmin domestiques Ben King and Nathan Brown. He then powered his big frame up the slopes of the Mirador del Potrero, finishing in a surprising 47th place, 2:42 behind stage winner Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing).

As he crossed the finish line in Juana Kosley on Wednesday, Boonen could not hide his disappointment, banging his bars after he was passed in the final 50 meters.

“We were planning on the first stage to give it a go, and today we wanted to give it a go as well,” Boonen said. “I’m already in good condition, but these weather circumstances are really hard. It was the hottest day of my career. I was really suffering. Everybody was really suffering.”

“Going into the sprint I think everything went perfectly, but I think I wanted it too much,” he continued. “I think I went a bit too early. Mark gave me a good leadout, and he still wasn’t finished. But I saw the sign of the finish, and I thought it was a headwind with a three- to four-percent uphill. I had the sensation that we weren’t going fast enough, so I just went. Straight away, when I came into the wind, I felt I was going to lose by the last 30 meters. My legs just blew in the last five seconds.”

Boonen said he’s happy that his condition is good, but he would be happier had he opened his 2014 account in Argentina. He’ll have one more opportunity, on stage 7, on Sunday.

“I’m already happy to be there, but if you’re taking all those chances and you’re trying to win, you want to win,” he said. “You’re not doing all those big efforts for third place. But still it’s a good sign that we were there.”

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