Mark Cavendish equalled the long-standing Tour de France stage win record, held by the five-times winner Eddy Merckx, with the 34th stage win of his career that ended in Carcassonne on Friday.
Once again the 36-year-old Cavendish, wiping away the sweat and the tears, confounded those who had written him off, after snatching his fourth win in this year’s race having almost quit the sport at the end of 2020.
“I don’t think I can ever be compared to the great Eddy Merckx, the greatest male road cyclist of all time,” he said, “but I think to equal him with the record number of stage victories, for people who don’t follow cycling a lot, is something they can understand and put into perspective. If that inspires them to get on a bike, because a British rider has done that, then it’s the biggest thing I can take from it.”
The defending Tour champion, Tadej Pogacar, who held on to his race lead after another tricky stage, punctuated by crashes, admitted that he had watched Cavendish “as a kid”.
“What he is doing now is really crazy,” the Slovenian said. “All respect to him.”
Merckx, speaking to the Italian media, was less impressed. “Of course there’s a difference between us,” the Belgian, now 76, said. “I won 34 Tour stages by winning sprints, in the mountains, in time trials and going on the attack on the descents. Let’s not forget the five yellow jerseys I’ve got at home plus the 96 days I wore it. Does that not seem much?”
Cavendish described his memorable win in Carcassonne as “one of the hardest”. He said: “I never go too well in the heat and today was hot, with heavy roads. It was just nervous and there was a slightly uphill drag on the last kilometre and that’s not ideal for me as a punchy sprinter. The drag uphill in a big gear was not meant for short legs.”
But despite his dislike of discussing the stage win record, Cavendish admitted that his momentous win had been his most demanding success since the start of the race in Brittany on 26 June.
“It’s part and parcel of being a leader,” he said, “shouldering the responsibility for the success of the team. It’s not just having the legs to sprint, it’s having the head to deal with the pressure. Ironically sprinters probably do the least amount of work of anybody in the team at the Tour de France, and in most cases they get paid the most money, except for the guys who can finish in the top 10 overall.”
“But that’s what you get paid for,” Cavendish said, “to shoulder those expectations. Even if the team doesn’t deliver, you’re expected to deliver. My team delivers every single time and that puts the pressure on me. Sometimes that can be hard especially if you don’t feel great.”
Cavendish’s winning streak began in 2008. Over the years he has suffered droughts, although nothing compared with the years in the wilderness, isolated by illness and poor form, that his current winning streak in Fougères ended, 10 days ago.
“I wish all the teammates I have had since 2008 were here to share this with me. But we still have work to do. It gets hard again tomorrow and we don’t have time to reflect on it. There’s plenty of time after this Tour de France to reflect on what we have done and the history we’ve made.”
Cavendish also addressed his sometimes difficult relationship with the media. “I’m not going to lie – I think sometimes I have been personally picked at, but on the same level, I have also been a prick,” Cavendish said. “That’s what happens when you’re young. For many years I suffered the consequences of being brash and young and without an education of how to behave with the media.
“As you grow older and you have a family and responsibility, you learn how to behave and unfortunately some people didn’t want to let go of what I was like when I was younger, even though I had changed. It maybe took time away for me to get that chip off my shoulder. I’m a grown-up now: I’m not a 20-year old-boy who wanted to fight the world.”
On his way to his record equalling sprint in Carcassonne, Cavendish survived a mass crash, a late bike change and the injuries of his team-mate, Tim Declercq, one of the fallers in the crash that forced Simon Yates’s withdrawal from this year’s Tour. The crash came with 62 kilometres remaining, as the peloton picked up speed and descended alongside a wooded ravine.
As some, including Yates, fell hard on the rough road, others tumbled into the trees and disappeared from view. The British Team Bike Exchange rider sat on the road for several minutes, briefly remounting, before quitting the race.
Not for the first time Ineos Grenadiers’ Geraint Thomas was also among the fallers. The Welshman, winner of the Tour in 2018, was distanced by the speeding peloton in the final few kilometres as, ahead of him, the sprint teams picked up pace and Cavendish delivered for his own team yet again.