After 10 seasons and 131 victories, Mark Cavendish experienced something new in his cycling career Sunday.
Cavendish powered across another finish line, head down in a blur of speed. But unlike in every other victory from Missouri to Qatar, the British rider didn’t know if he had prevailed in the windy, fast Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California.
Cavendish (Omega Pharm Quick-Step), 28, delayed his usual display of affection for his teammates following the 120-mile trek. But after a few minutes and the officials’ review, he won by less than the width of a racing tire over John Degenkolb (Belkin) of Germany in 4 hours, 44 minutes and 7 seconds. The average speed was 25.3 mph.
Moreno Hofland (Belkin) of the Netherlands was third. Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Cannondale), a 10-time Tour of California stage winner, was fourth.
“To be fair, I won Milano-San Remo by 10 centimeters (4 inches) before,” Cavendish said. “I’ve lost a sprint in the Giro d’Italia by 3 centimeters. Both of those, I knew the outcome. This is the first time in my career I really had no idea. I had to wait a little bit until they confirmed.”
With bonus times awarded in the finish sprint, Cavendish will take a four-second race lead over Degenkolb into Monday’s Stage 2 time trial in Folsom. Hofland trails by six seconds.
“I knew that (Cavendish) was right behind me,” Degenkolb said. “I knew that I had planned a long sprint. I timed it pretty well. I didn’t go too early, and I didn’t go too late. I saw him coming on the right side, not too quick but slowly and surely.
“I was trying to avoid him overtaking me, but I couldn’t succeed. I knew at the line he had the victory.”
The opening stage, the second time the 9-year-old race has started in Sacramento, began just before 11 a.m. in warm, windy conditions near the Capitol on L Street.
Two hours after the men’s start, Carmen Small (Specialized–lululemon), 34, of Durango, Colo., powered to the front in the waning meters to claim the women’s one-hour circuit race over Coryn Rivera (United Healthcare). Briana Walle (Optum) was third.
Rivera, who has won 53 junior and collegiate titles, moved to the center and made her move early in the sprint. But Small, third in the 2013 World Time Trial Championships, started her sprint later and successfully.
Cavendish hadn’t competed in the Tour of California since 2010, when he won the road stage ending in Sacramento.
During May, he usually competes in the Tour of Italy, where he has won 15 stages. The race began Friday.
This year, following an early-season injury, Cavendish switched to the shorter Tour of California to prepare for the Tour de France in July.
“We knew it was going to be windy, but to be honest, the wind changed direction on the way back,” Cavendish said. “We thought it was going to be a crosswind in the last 20 miles on the main road on the way to Sacramento.
“We sensed the move that split the group. Omega Pharma-Quick-Step is a Belgian team (accustomed to the wind). We felt the crosswinds, knew the split was going to happen, and we just went straight to the front. It split, and we were there. We were well-represented with four guys.”
From Sacramento, the men’s field headed north, passed through Pleasant Grove and Lincoln and progressed to Auburn and toward Cool. The return route, downhill and fast, concluded with three, two-mile laps around the Capitol.
Escaping from the field a few minutes into the stage and building the first sustained break of the race were Tom Leezer (Belkin), Isaac Bolivar (United Healthcare), Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk), Will Routley (Otpum-Kelly Benefit), Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Bissell).
The peloton was content to let the leaders go, and the group built a five-minute lead after 18 miles while the wind blew in various directions.
The international scope of the race was represented in the lead group. The pacesetters were from six countries.
Halfway through the stage, the leaders’ advantage had fluctuated, but after nearly three hours of racing, the main field hadn’t begun to reel in the front-runners approaching Auburn.
The leaders endured despite the ever-changing winds.
“It was flat and brutal and windy,” Routley said.
Slightly after the only climb of the day entering El Dorado County, the main field quickly began to reduce its deficit. Eighty miles into the stage, the leaders’ gap was 21/2 minutes. The leaders finally were caught after 4 hours, 20 minutes with about 14 miles left.
The second stage of the eight-day men’s race, a 12.5-mile individual time trial, will begin at 1:05 p.m. on Sutter Street in Folsom’s historic district. The women’s individual time trial is scheduled for 11:10 a.m.