Mark Cavendish of Great Britain, a cycling sprint specialist, was in unfamiliar territory on Saturday when he presented the game ball before the Missouri-Illinois football game.
"It took me three hours to understand what was actually going on," Cavendish said.
The opening stage of the Tour of Missouri was more like it. The 24-year-old Cavendish, who won six stages of the Tour de France in July, prevailed in a sprint finish of the 75-mile circuit race, beating J.J. Haedo of Saxo Bank and Thor Hushovd of Cervelo Test to the line with a time of 2 hours, 43 minutes and 56 seconds over a flat course.
Defending champion Christian Vande Velde was part of a pileup that involved more than a dozen riders near the finish and was the last of 118 to finish. Vande Velde was taken to a hospital with a wrist injury.
"We try to take control of the finish, we try to take control of the race," Cavendish said. "It was like a carrot on a string at the finish line."
Cavendish has 24 stage wins this year, and finished first in at least one stage of every event since March of 2008. Hushovd, who won the green jersey in the Tour de France as the best sprinter, broke a wheel after hitting a manhole cover depression about a half-mile to go.
"Everybody goes through some time in their career when they're pretty much unbeatable," Haedo said. "It's not going to last forever. At least that's what we hope."
Cavendish makes a habit of getting to the end with plenty left, taking three stages of the Tour of Missouri last year, because of the strength of his team. The Columbia lineup features Michael Rogers, a three-time world time trial champion, and George Hincapie, a veteran of 14 Tour de Frances and coming off his third USA pro cycling road race title.
"I don't feel any pressure at all, it's what I enjoy doing," Cavendish said. "For sure, when I lose then it's hard. If the guys ride like they rode all day and I don't win, that's hard to deal with."
The only difficulty with this victory was splitting the spoils. A sponsor presented a $12,500 Harley Davidson motorcycle to the stage one winner.
"We like to celebrate our successes together and that includes the rewards you get," Cavendish said. "It'll get split fairly."
The team's about to get splintered a bit, with the 36-year-old Hincapie signing a two-year contract with BMC. Hincapie said this has been one of his "most memorable" years in cycling, given the success he's helped Cavendish achieve in the Milan-San Remo race and Tour de France.
Those wins "are right up there with anything I've done my whole career," Hincapie said. "So really right now, I prefer to focus on that. Once next season rolls around I'll be focusing on new challenges."
Cavendish already misses him, referring to Hincapie as the "granddaddy of the team" while crediting the veteran for helping him succeed in cycling.
"To be perfectly honest, I get really emotional about it," Cavendish said. "He's like a big brother to me. We've worked so well the last few years and he's such a big, big part of the team."
Moises Aldape Chavez of Team Type 1, who was part of a three-man breakaway that lasted most the race and the last member to get reeled in before the final 7.5-mile circuit, was named most aggressive rider after the first day. The second stage of the seven-day event is a 112-mile road race from Ste. Genevieve to Cape Girardeau.