A still-in-construction apartment complex loomed over the finishing straight of stage 4 of the Tour Colombia. “The best place to live in Zipaquirá, far from the chaos and congestion,” read a billboard advertising the new units, yours for 24 million pesos.
On Friday afternoon, the chaos and congestion were happening directly underneath those half-built towers. A bike race of any kind will always draw a crowd in this corner of the Andes, but the whole of Egan Bernal’s hometown seemed to have turned out to welcome him back, a heaving mass of humanity all along Carrera 15.
The flat run-in, of course, meant that this was a day for the sprinters rather than Bernal, but the spectators leaning over the barriers had conflicting information as to whether Mark Cavendish had made it back on after the peloton had split on the final climb. “Cavendish isn’t there, it’s for Gaviria today,” a man draped in a Colombian flag insisted to his neighbour as the bunch appeared into view, a swirl in the distance.
As the tornado drew nearer, the colours became clearer. The cyan jerseys of Cavendish’s Astana Qazaqstan team were indeed present, and their strength in numbers brought order to the chaos. First Michael Mørkøv and then Cees Bol peeled off, opening the way for Cavendish to claim victory ahead of Fernando Gaviria (Movistar).
There was a sharp left-hand turn a couple of hundred metres beyond the finish line, and Cavendish had to brake sharply to avoid riding into the waiting soigneurs and journalists. The man draped in the Colombian flag, meanwhile, sensed his opportunity. After climbing onto the barriers to shout “Cavendish! Cavendish!” at the top of his lungs, he jumped onto the road and waded his way into the celebrations.
Cavendish moved through the melee as best he could, hugging his teammates in turn as he located them, and then accepting the congratulations of Gaviria, before he was eventually swept off towards the podium.
Once the crowd dissipated, Mørkøv finally found enough room to take a swig from his recovery drink. The Dane joined Astana this winter to serve as Cavendish’s guide in the finishing straight, but on Friday, his most important work came a long way from the finish. In the frantic kilometres after the bunch fractured on the Alto Sisga, Mørkøv’s poise was key in helping the group containing Cavendish and Gaviria back to the front.
“It was quite chaotic. We were in quite a big group, but I think a lot of the guys here aren’t used to riding in echelons, so the cooperation was really, really bad,” Mørkøv told Cyclingnews. “But in the end, we and Movistar got some riders back to bring Fernando and Cav back into the game.
“It’s nice to pull it off when the team had to work like we did today, and we made a really perfect lead-out, we had five riders in the last k. When you have that, it will be hard to lose.”
When Cavendish took a seat in the press room afterwards, he explained that Mørkøv’s efforts in sewing the peloton back together had meant his lead-out train was deployed in a different configuration. On his own initiative, Mørkøv switched places with Bol, with the Dutchman instead serving as Cavendish’s last man.
“It’s super important to be able to do that,” Cavendish said. “It was Michael’s call, actually. He had had to put so much into that chase back with the other guys. After that effort, it was just Michael’s call to make sure we had fresh legs in front of me.”
While Cavendish was being presented on the podium in Zipaquirá, the speaker noted that it was Journalists’ Day in Colombia. “Let’s celebrate it,” he said. Cavendish duly did his bit for the trade by clarifying for reporters that he hadn’t been dropped on the Alto Sisga.
“I wasn’t dropped, the peloton split in half,” Cavendish insisted. “A glass half-empty person always goes, ‘You were dropped.’ The peloton split in half, that’s how you look at it. But once you know there’s another team there with a strong sprinter, you’ve got a better chance of getting back.
“I thought with Fernando behind, we’d get back quite quickly. But there wasn’t that much cohesion. It was just two teams to work to get back and the boys – both Astana and Movistar – were incredible. That’s why I’m happy Fernando and I were first and second, both teams deserved that.”
Victory in Zipaquirá was the 164th of Cavendish’s professional career and Colombia is the 20th country in which he has crossed the line first. The headlines all year will be a steady drumbeat towards the main event in July, of course, but for a sprinter, the dopamine hit is welcome at any point in the season. “It’s always nice,” he said. “Ask any sprinter, once they get their first win, it’s OK.”
Cavendish’s main order of business in Colombia was an extended altitude camp to form a base for the remainder of his campaign, but the four-week expedition might have had a different flavour without a victory along the way.
“We already had a win with Harold Tejada, so we were happy with this Tour Colombia, but to be able to win a sprint and see that lead-out in full flight was pretty special,” he said.
Zipaquirá takes its name from the Zipa, the Chibcha word for the ruler of this altopiano prior to the Spanish conquest. Cavendish demurred, however, when asked if he was the zipa, or king, of the sprints. “It’s a democracy, the sprint. Sprinting is more of a republic, you know,” he said. “That’s a better way to look at it.”
Who could argue with him?