Each Tour de France produces many striking vignettes, and Thursday’s from the finish at the bleak mountain top ski resort of Luz Ardiden in the Pyrenees was one of the best. At funeral pace, the diminutive Manx cyclist Mark Cavendish crossed the finish line dead last, 32 minutes behind the stage winner Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, who will win the overall title when the race finishes in Paris today.
He finished last, but there were echoes of a victory parade: alongside Cavendish lined across the road were four of his teammates at the Belgian Deceuninck-Quickstep team, who had helped him survive this week’s four mountain stages of the Tour. That left Cavendish in a position to try for the 35th Tour de France stage win of his career on Friday and Sunday’s flat stages, an attempt to push beyond the record of 34 which he held jointly with cycling’s Greatest of All Time, Eddy Merckx.
On Friday, the stage did not go his way, leaving him with one final chance to push past Merckx; the concluding stage of the Tour today up the Champs Elysées, which he won four times in a row between 2009 and 2012.
That Cavendish had got level with Merckx and could still go beyond the ‘Cannibal’ is potentially the British sporting performance of 2021. The Merckx record had been widely regarded as untouchable, because it was based on the Belgian’s dominance of his sport in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was absolute. Merckx scored his 34 Tour stage wins in the process of taking five overall titles and a second place in six Tours between 1969 and 1975 (missing out 1973 in the process). Along the way he had notched up eight wins in one single Tour, in 1970.
Given the unique status within the sport of both Merckx and Cavendish, there is every chance that if Cavendish is to take the absolute record in Paris today, the record will remain on the shelf for good. Like Merckx, Cavendish is a complete one-off, a sprinter who began to win prolifically in his early 20s – before most cyclists hit their physical prime – and is still winning in his late 30s, when most cyclists have retired. Between 2008 and 2013 he was the dominant sprinter at the Tour, notching up 20 stage wins; in that time he also became the first Briton since 1967 to win the world road race championship.
Just as another Merckx will not come along, there is little chance that cycling will see another sprinter as talented as Cavendish – already crowned the best sprinter of all time – and with similar durability. Cavendish’s 14 years of winning stages in the Tour has seen three generations of sprinters come, surpass him briefly, and then peter out.
The 36-year-old’s longevity can be measured in various ways, but here’s my favourite: in 2008, he won his first Tour stage in the town of Chateauroux, beating, among others, a German, Erik Zabel, who had dominated Tour sprints for much of the 1990s. Thirteen years later, when he took his 32nd stage win, also in Chateauroux, among the also-rans was Erik Zabel’s son, Rik.
Back in November, no one would have predicted any of this. It seemed unlikely that Cavendish would even be racing in 2021, let alone winning multiple stages of the Tour. The Merckx record wasn’t even remotely on the horizon. Last November, Cavendish finished a race in Belgium, the Ghent-Wevelgem classic, and tearfully told television cameras he might have ridden his last race. He had endured three seasons afflicted by Epstein-Barr virus and a series of heavy crashes. It was four years since he had won his last Tour de France stage, and he hadn’t been considered for selection for the 2020 race. His contract with the Bahrain-Maclaren team was up, and no offers from other teams in 2021 were in the pipeline.
His retirement seemed imminent, until he was offered a deal with Deceuninck-Quickstep, thanks mainly to a strong friendship with the team head, Patrick Lefevere and the fact that Cavendish had turned up with a personal sponsor to pay his wage. At the start of the season, it was not even clear what races he would be riding, because Lefevere already had the best sprinter of the 2020 Tour, Ireland’s Sam Bennett, on his roster, plus several other strong young sprinters. Cavendish picked up four stages in the Tour of Turkey in April, but that was dismissed as a second-string race, and it wasn’t until Bennett picked up a minor knee injury in mid-June that a ride in the Tour beckoned.
Bennett didn’t pull out until one week before the French race, meaning that the Manxman was a last-minute call up. Four stage wins later, and with the all-time record beckoning, Cavendish looks like the signing of the decade, but it could so easily have gone the other way.