Thirteen years to the day after a fresh-faced Mark Cavendish won his first Tour de France stage in Châteauroux in 2008, a cooked Cav crossed the line to make it an historic 34 wins in Carcassonne to cap a captivating comeback.
Written off by all and sundry, Cavendish hadn’t ridden the world’s biggest bike race for three years when he was called up as a late edition to the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad the week before the race. Sure, he had picked up a handful of wins in Turkey, but Cav had huge boots to fill considering Sam Bennett, the injured sprinter he was replacing, won the green jersey last year.
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But fast forward a few weeks and Cavendish is himself in green with a buffer of over one-hundred points. He is also, alongside the great Eddy Merckx, the Tour’s leading stage winner. Without a victory on the world’s biggest bike race since 2016, the 36-year-old has now won four times from four sprints – and we still have eight stages remaining.

Some superstars fade away, Mark didn't - The key for Cavendish is his drive

Not that Cavendish will have much joy over the next five days as the race enters its second mountainous phase in the Pyrenees.
If it were a struggle betting through the Alps and up and over Mont Ventoux – twice – then the hardest tests may yet be to come. But the rewards are huge: survive the Pyrenees and Cav will have another two occasions to become the Tour’s standalone leading stage winner. And should he fail at the first hurdle in Stage 19 to Saint-Emilion, then fans will be treated to the mouth-watering scenario of Cavendish beating the Cannibal on the Champs-Elysées in green.
How did we get to this point, where a washed-up yesterday’s man is suddenly the man to beat in Tour de France sprints?
There are numerous contributing factors, of course – not least, Caleb Ewan crashing out of the race, Arnaud Demare’s setbacks from his own tumble, Peter Sagan not being completely at the races, Wout van Aert being deployed elsewhere, and Dylan Groenewegen missing selection entirely. Most of all, there’s the small matter of Sam Bennett’s injury.
The Irishman’s absence opened the door to Cavendish and secured his slot on the Deceuninck-QuickStep roster – a call up he more than earned through his form in the Tour of Turkey and Baloise Belgium Tour. Having finally got over the Epstein Barr virus that held him back at Bahrain-McLaren and having returned to a team where he had enjoyed much success before, selection for the Tour was the final piece of the jigsaw. But there was no guarantee that Cav would slip into a Deceuninck-QuickStep train he had hardly ever been part of.
And while Cavendish’s finishing speed has been superb, it’s his teammates – as Cavendish never ceases to underline – who deserve particular credit for paving the way and repeatedly dropping off their man on the home straight.

'The best sprinter' - Morkov full of praise for Cavendish

No more was this more evident than on Friday with Cavendish’s record-equalling win, with the Danish veteran Michael Morkov practically checking his own speed to ensure his teammate was the prefix of an historic QuickStep one-two at Carcassonne.
Speaking of which, Cav was essentially a carcass on wheels after becoming the oldest man in history to win four stages at a single edition of the Tour. Sweltering temperatures in southern France, fierce racing from the get-go, and a whopping 220km on the menu all contributed to Cavendish being rendered speechless when it came to talking about the record he never wanted to talk about.
It’s tiring. I can’t even think about it. I’m afraid I’m so dead. 220 kilometres in that heat, that wind, that final… I went deep there, so deep. The boys were incredible. I can’t believe it. For a lot of the day I was so on the limit.
Cavendish got through the day thanks to his teammates – and in particular the Belgian powerhouse Tim Declercq, who went down heavily in a crash that sent riders off the road and into the bushes with over 60km remaining. (Declercq would later finish the stage in last place just three minutes before the cut-off.)
The world champion Julian Alaphilippe then came to the fore to put out any fires – just as Kasper Asgreen had done earlier in the stage when breakaway attempts came thick and fast in a hectic opening half-hour. Dries Devenyns and Mattia Cattaneo both played their roles superbly in the stressful approach to Carcassonne before Asgreen led the blue train coming under the flamme rouge with Davide Ballerini, Morkov and Cavendish in his wake.
Between the last two bends, Ballerini went clear on a flyer to pave the way, with Ivan Garcia’s surge helping to draw Morkov and Cavendish back into the fold just as Jasper Philipsen launched his sprint. And in the end, Morkov – a better leadout man you’d be hard-pressed to find – was so strong that he could have denied his teammate his latest landmark win.
But the Dane did his duty and let Cavendish through ahead of a string of rapturous expletives from the man of the moment. If his post-race interview was a little subdued, Cav was all too aware of what he’s just achieved: approaching Ballerini immediately afterwards, he said, “We’ve made history.”

WATCH - Every single one of Mark Cavendish's 34 Tour de France stage wins

Speaking moments later to Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour, however, Cavendish did his best to underplay his accomplishment and avoid bringing Merckx into the conversation. Instead he went off on a strange, rambling but not altogether unwelcome tirade about how having such small shoulders earned him the scorn of the race jury for perceived headbutts on riders while exiting roundabouts. It was all quite strange and subdued, but quite eye-opening all the same.
He also stressed that it didn’t mean anything to him that he had won 34 stages – what was most important was how his successes could inspire future generations.
It’s just another win on the Tour de France – just like my first one. I’ve won a stage on the Tour de France – and that was always my dream as a kid. If any one of my wins can inspire kids to ride the Tour when they grow up, then that’s what means the most to me.
But later on, once the dust had settled and the achievement had set in, Cavendish did open up in a press conference about his feelings on drawing level with Merckx. Typically for today’s more mature and measured Manxman, he was full or grace and perspective in his claim that, "I don’t think I can ever be compared to Eddy Merckx, the greatest male road cyclist of all time."
The approaching Pyrenean chapter of the Tour will put everything on hold for now as Cavendish takes a step back and focuses on survival. It will be at least another week before he has a chance to take the outright record – and so for now Eddy Cavendish, Mark Merckx, or perhaps even ‘The Cavnibal’ will be the status quo: two champions in their own right, locked on 34 wins each.
Of course, should Cavendish fail to get through the mountains we could face the possibility that he will stay, forever, alongside Merckx on 34 Tour stage wins – for there’s no guarantee that Cav will be back in such mesmerising form next year at the race he so clearly loves.
So, let’s savour his achievements while we can. Regardless of whether he wins another stage on the Tour, what Cavendish has managed this summer is nothing short than one of the most astonishing comebacks in sports history.
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