Mark Cavendish and the Long Road to Level With Merckx By Sophie Smith | Images by Chris Auld

You have to shake your head in disbelief at Mark Cavendish’s journey to Friday’s stage into Carcassonne where he equalled Eddy Merckx’s all-time stage win record at the Tour de France.

Nine months ago, I was writing of his teary contemplation of retirement, and the end of a glittering career that had nonetheless long faded. The year before, a newly established generation of sprinters, during a photo op at an early season race in the Middle East, had asked the Manxman: “Why don’t you just retire?”

Cavendish once had a tidal pull at the Tour, a race that he reveled in. But Marcel Kittel’s rise to preeminence and then the introduction of pure sprinters Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen reduced the once heaving scene outside Cavendish’s team bus to desolation.

One by one his loyal stewards hung up their cleats. His renowned lead-out man Mark Renshaw retired at the end of 2019, and shortly after that so too did his road captain—now turned TV pundit—Bernhard Eisel.

“I don’t want to keep riding just to get paid. I want to be there and be competitive. It’s not fun to be kind of on the back foot in racing when for so many years I’ve been on the front of it,” Renshaw had said then.

Cavendish stayed laboring at the back until Deceuninck–Quick-Step threw him a lifeline and he rejoined the team this season. The 36-year-old then strung together five wins across the Tour of Turkey and Belgium Tour with a support cast largely separate to the one Bennett was racing with in preparation for the Tour.

When a colleague from Eurosport messaged me less than a week out from the Grand Départ saying Cavendish was going to the Tour, I thought he meant as a pundit for the network, not a replacement for the injured Bennett, who after being the toast of Quick-Step’s Tour team last season now appears to have bad blood with team manager Patrick Lefevere. 

“Always I say you’re allowed one mistake a year, and it wasn’t a mistake,” Lefevere said of his gamble on Cavendish. The pundits who doubted whether Cavendish could win one Tour stage this year grossly underestimated his team, which within the last 10 years has piloted most of the best sprinters in the world—the Manxman, Bennett, Kittel, Viviani and Gaviria—to great success.

Decuninck–Quick-Step has found great success with a variety of sprinters over the years. Image: Chris Auld.

Chief lead-out man Michael Mørkøv arguably could have won stage 13 on Friday himself had his job not been to support Cavendish; the Dane finished second to his leader, sprinting in his saddle.

The absence of most of the men who have set the benchmark in sprinting for the last few years has also aided the team. Bennett, Gaviria and Groenewegen didn’t start and top-billed fast-man Ewan, whose face and victory celebrations had been plastered all over race posters at stage starts and finishes, crashed out on stage 3.

Alpecin-Fenix looked as if it might be able to challenge Quick-Step with its own fast lead-out, but it has been at a disadvantage since Mathieu van der Poel and Tim Merlier abandoned. That’s not to detract from Cavendish’s resurgence at the Tour. You can only race against who is in front of you, but the former world champion has had more than a pinch of good luck at the race which this year, for once, has a decent offering of flat stages.

This year’s route has seen more flat stages than in recent editions. Image: Chris Auld.

“I’m 36, but I’m a massive fan of all the young guys and it’s an honor to race against them,” Cavendish said when asked of his rivals earlier this week. “But honestly, I’m so sad for my friend Caleb. He’s the one I see that can really think and play out a sprint. He’s small, he jumps from wheel to wheel and he’s the one since he was a kid, I’ve been a fan of his.”

“I really wanted, just for honor, to be able to sprint head to head with him and I think that would have been beautiful for the Tour de France as well. I spoke to him the other day and said it’s going to be hard sat home when the race is going on. It always is. But it makes it sweeter when you come back.”

The Tour return has been sweet for Cavendish. Image: Chris Auld.

Cavendish’s career 34th Tour stage victory didn’t come without great physical effort. He was less rehearsed, and more flustered talking to press immediately after. “I never go too well in the heat and today was hot, every road, and it was just nervous, we were always at the front,” he said.

“It was a slightly uphill drag, the last kilometer. It’s not ideal for me as a punchy sprinter, it suits Wout van Aert, Jasper Philipsen, [Ivan] Cortina. We were lucky.”

Cavendish is not the best sprinter in cycling anymore, but he’s the strongest sprinter at this battle-weary Tour de France in which he is forging what he has long wanted to leave behind him: a legacy.   

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