Cavendish, arguably the greatest sprinter of his generation, is still returning to full strength after suffering from the Epstein-Barr virus that has curtailed his racing for much of the last 12 months.
But he was still hopeful of securing a victory that would have delighted the Yorkshire crowds on the 132km stage from Barnsley to the market town of Bedale.
“I bottled it a little bit actually,” said the former world champion. “Simple as. I thought Dan McLay would go, but he didn’t go. And I just didn’t react.
“I just hesitated a bit too long. I should have anticipated when Dan didn’t go. I should have got the jump. I felt good (yesterday) actually. I felt good (Thursday). Obviously it would be nice to put that into a result.”
The victory was a welcome one for Zabel after a season blighted by concussion, the roar he let out as he crossed the line underlining his delight.
“The last kilometres were pure chaos. I was close to crashing a few times,” he said. “I was so afraid for the last 50m, I’m not a guy who wins often. It was such a relief when I crossed the line first. I had a tough start to the season with a concussion so to win a stage in Yorkshire is really amazing.” Stage one winner Jesper Asselman retains the leader’s jersey.
Earlier in the day, Lorena Wiebes of the Netherlands sprinted to victory on stage one of the women’s Tour de Yorkshire in a race illuminated by Lizzie Deignan’s attacks.
Reports: Page 10