Thirteen years after his maiden stage win at the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish added yet another mass sprint to his tally to equal Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins on Friday.
Merckx amassed his wins in the 1960s and 70s, an era during which his domination was so outrageous that he earned the nickname of The Cannibal.
Unlike Merckx – who did it a record five times – Cavendish has never won the Tour.
“I don’t think I can ever be compared to the great Eddy Merckx, the greatest male road cyclist of all time,” he said.
Cavendish’s abilities are more limited, but his speed prowess and longevity among his fellow sprinters have no equal at the Tour. Particularly this summer, in the absence of teammate Sam Bennett, whom he replaced at the last minute – and after Caleb Ewan crashed out early in the race.
Taking part in cycling’s biggest race for the first time since 2018, the 36-year-old former world champion posted his fourth stage win in the southern city of Carcassonne, at the end of a long and hot day on the bike.
“I haven’t realized it,” he said when asked about the record, “It’s still just another win on the Tour de France. It’s like my first one. I’ve won a stage of the Tour de France. It’s what I dreamed of as a kid and it’s what I dream of now. I’ve worked so hard for it.”
Cavendish’s latest achievements are even more remarkable for coming after a long period of doubts. Just a few months ago, he was even contemplating retirement.
But Cavendish secured a new contract with his former Deceuninck Quick Step team for this year after returning from a bout of depression and several seasons of struggles on and off the bike. He was not expected to ride in the Tour and was a late call-up last month as a replacement for Bennett, the best sprinter of last year’s Tour.
Having survived the Alpine stages in terrible weather conditions, Cavendish will have two more opportunities in flat stages to beat Merckx’s record if he goes across the Pyrenees without trouble. And if he manages to reach the finish line in Paris on July 18, the best sprinter’s green jersey he currently dons will be another target. He has completed the Tour in half of his 12 entries.
Known as “The Manx Missile” as he comes from the Isle of Man, Cavendish jostled for position in the last two kilometres to stay on the wheel of lead-out man Michael Morkov. He looked trapped in traffic with 300 metres left but zigzagged to the front and comfortably won ahead of Morkov. Jasper Philipsen was third.
“I went deep, I went so deep there,” he said. “The boys were incredible. I can’t believe it. A lot of the day it didn’t feel like it, but it had to happen because I had the guys riding like they were. I was so on the limit there.”
There was no significant change in the general classification as race leader Tadej Pogacar enjoyed a quiet day in the peloton. Pogacar kept his 5:18 lead over second-placed Rigoberto Uran, with Jonas Vingegaard in third, 5:33 off the pace.
The race animated immediately with a flurry of attacks in the early stages of the 220-kilometre trek in southern France. But Cavendish’s teammates set a fast tempo at the front to prevent large group of riders from breaking away, determined to ensure a mass sprint in the end.
They responded to every dangerous move and relaxed only when a trio of riders formed, knowing that it would be impossible for them to beat the chase of the pack later in the day.
Omer Goldstein, Pierre Latour and Sean Bennett worked well together but were kept on a tight leash.
In the shadow of large plane trees scattered across the route through the Languedoc vineyards, the leading trio was reduced to a pair when Latour and Goldstein dropped Bennett. They were reined in with 50 kilometres left after a crash involving dozens of riders briefly split the peloton. British cyclist Simon Yates, the 2018 Spanish Vuelta champion, was among those who hit the ground and abandoned.
Frenchman Quentin Pacher then launched an ill-fated solo effort to build a lead of more than a minute before Deceuninck Quick Step riders dramatically sped up the pace to swallow him about 19 kilometres from the finish.