Cavendish earns Tour de France immortality with 35th stage win

Mark Cavendish graphic

Mark Cavendish has won 165 times since springing to prominence during 2004-05 [BBC]

Mark Cavendish was determined – perhaps destined – to break the Tour de France stage wins record.

Last year was supposed to be his 14th and final Tour, but the dream of ending his career with the outright record motivated him to delay his retirement and make another comeback.

Already regarded as the best sprinter of all time, now the Manx Missile has earned the prize he desperately sought with his 35th victory in cycling’s greatest race at Saint Vulbas on Wednesday – his 165th career victory.

He will be immortalised in the race’s history after surpassing Eddy Merckx to become its greatest ever stage winner.

In a post on social media Belgian Merckx, who won the Tour five times between 1969-1974, wrote: “Congratulations Mark for this historic performance. A good guy who has beaten my record on the Tour.”

Cavendish had jointly held the record for most Tour stage wins with Merckx since winning his 34th stage in 2021.

At the age of 39, surpassing a tally previously considered almost out of reach for any modern-day rider let alone a sprinter, is an achievement that speaks of the longevity and breadth of success of his career.

“The Tour de France is bigger than cycling. I love it, I love racing the Tour,” Cavendish said.

“Every little detail has been put towards today.”

Cavendish’s love affair with the Tour began on 7 July 2008 at Chateauroux – the first of four stage victories in that edition of the race.

His breakthrough moment arguably came on the track in 2005, with a world title in the madison, after springing to prominence in the newly-formed British Cycling academy under the supervision of Rod Ellingworth.

But his ability to read a finish, weave into position and produce devastating accelerations have all served to make him formidable in La Grande Boucle.

Cavendish like ‘a fine wine’ who gets better with age

Mark Cavendish celebrates victoryMark Cavendish celebrates victory

Mark Cavendish is the second-oldest rider to win a Tour de France stage [Getty Images]

Since drawing level with Belgian legend Merckx in 2021, Cavendish has had to deal with a knifepoint robbery and the uncertainty of finding a new team at the age of 37.

There was also the bitter disappointment of leaving the Tour with a broken collarbone 12 months ago, while injuries and depression contributed to him not winning once during 2019 and 2020.

Yet here he is in his 15th Tour, displaying the confidence of the rider who was virtually impossible to beat between 2008 and 2012 when he claimed 23 stage wins, including four on the Champs-Elysees.

“Without the Tour de France cycling does not exist,” Cavendish said in his 2023 Netflix documentary, Mark Cavendish: Never Enough.

With 35 victories out of 215 completed stages he also has a strike rate of almost one in six.

It is a remarkable feat for a rider who has been described as having a sharp tongue and fiery temper by former team-mates – and as a “pain in the ass” by the straight-talking Vasilis Anastopoulos, who worked with Cavendish at Quick Step and is now head of performance at the Manxman’s current Astana Qazaqstan team.

The Greek coach has been credited by Cavendish for helping rejuvenate his career during their time together at the Belgian Quick Step team, and for playing a pivotal role in his 2021 and 2022 success at both the Tour and Giro d’Italia.

Cavendish’s former lead-out man Mark Renshaw is now Astana’s sporting director.

“He’s amazing. He’s just like a fine wine who gets better and better,” Renshaw said of the sprinter.

“The team had so much confidence in him and they had that all year. We’ve changed the team to look after him and he has been mega committed.

I don’t know how many days he’s been with his family but this year it has not been many and that is the type of commitment you need.

‘This was about much more than modern cycling’

Mark Cavendish & Peter KennaughMark Cavendish & Peter Kennaugh

Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh rode together at Team Sky [Getty Images]

It was notable to see the sheer number of riders waiting to embrace Cavendish at the conclusion of Wednesday’s 177.4 km route from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Saint Vulbas.

But when he was struggling in the heat on a brutal opening stage containing over 3,600m of climbing, there had been doubts as to whether this historic win would even be possible.

An emotional Anastopoulos said: “We spent three months in Greece from 2 April, every day believing. On the first day [of the Tour] he had heat stroke so we thought we had done something wrong, but he did it again.

“He was super strong at the end. He was the old Cavendish.”

Race leader Tadej Pogacar said at the finish line: “Incredible. A 35th victory for Mark. I used to watch him on television and we loved him. He came to me and said ‘don’t you break my record’ – but I don’t think I can.”

Speaking on ITV 4, Cavendish’s former Team Sky team-mate Peter Kennaugh also gave a glowing tribute to his childhood friend.

“You can never give up faith in Mark Cavendish. I know this will mean everything to Mark because he is so much more than a sprinter,” Kennaugh said.

“What he has achieved is not just going down in cycling history but sporting history. It is incredible.

“He thrives off people telling him he can’t do it and he’s had that his whole career until this very day.

“This was about much more than modern cycling and what we see every day. It was about passion, dedication and his love for the sport and willingness to never give up.”

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