Mark Cavendish equaled the long-standing record for Tour de France stage wins, held by five-time winner Eddy Merckx, with the 34th stage victory of his career ending Friday in Carcassonne.
Once again, Cavendish, 36, wiping away sweat and tears, bewildered those who had written him off, after notching his fourth victory in this year’s race after almost leaving the sport in late 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 I can match him with the record number of wins in the world. ‘step, for people who don’t follow cycling a lot, it’s something they can understand and put into perspective. If that makes them get on a bike, because a British rider did, then that’s the most important thing I can get out of it.
Reigning Tour champion Tadej Pogacar, who retained his lead after another tricky stage punctuated by crashes, admitted to looking at Cavendish “like a kid”.
“What he’s doing now is really crazy,” said the Slovenian. “All respect for him. “
Merckx, speaking to Italian media, was less impressed. “Of course there is a difference between us,” said the Belgian, now 76. “I won 34 stages of the Tour by winning sprints, in the mountains, in time trials and by being on the attack on the descents. Let’s not forget the five yellow jerseys I have at home plus the 96 days I wore them. Doesn’t that sound like a lot? ”
Cavendish described his memorable victory at Carcassonne as “one of the most difficult”. He said: “I’m never too good in the heat and today it was hot, with heavy roads. It was just nervous and there was a slight drag uphill the last mile and not ideal for me as a hard-hitting sprinter. The uphill drag in a big gear was not made for short legs.
But despite his aversion to discussing the stage winning record, Cavendish admitted his momentous victory was his most demanding success since the race started in Brittany on June 26.
“It’s an integral part of being a leader,” he said, “taking responsibility for the success of the team. It’s not just about having the legs to sprint, it’s about having the head to handle the pressure. Ironically, the sprinters probably do the least work of any member of the Tour de France team, and in most cases they get paid the most, except for the guys who can finish in the top 10. in the general classification.
“But that’s what you get paid for,” Cavendish said, “to meet those expectations. Even if the team doesn’t deliver, you are expected to do so. My team delivers every time and it puts pressure on me. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially if you are not feeling well.
Cavendish’s winning streak began in 2008. Over the years he has endured droughts, though nothing compared to the years in the wild, isolated by disease and poor form, as his current winning streak has Ferns ended 10 days ago.
“I wish all the teammates I have since 2008 were here to share this with me. But we still have work to do. It gets tough again tomorrow and we don’t have time to think about it. There is a lot of time after this Tour de France to reflect on what we have done and the history we have made.
Cavendish also addressed his sometimes difficult relationship with the media. “I’m not going to lie – I think sometimes I’ve been personally chosen, but on the same level, I’ve been an asshole too,” Cavendish said. “That’s what happens when you’re young. For many years, I suffered the consequences of being brash and young and uneducated in how to deal with the media.
“As you get older and have a family and responsibilities, you learn to behave and unfortunately some people didn’t want to give up who I was when I was younger even though I had changed. Maybe it took me a while to get this chip off my shoulder. I’m an adult now: I’m not a 20 year old boy who wanted to fight the world.
On the way to his record tying the sprint at Carcassonne, Cavendish survived a mass crash, a late bike change and injuries to teammate Tim Declercq, one of the victims of the crash that forced Simon Yates to retire from this year’s Tour. The accident happened with 62 kilometers to go, as the peloton gathered speed and descended along a wooded ravine.
While some, including Yates, fell hard on the rough road, others fell into the trees and disappeared from view. The British Team Bike Exchange rider sat on the road for several minutes, ascending briefly, before exiting the race.
It was not the first time that Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers was also part of the fallers. The Welshman, Tour winner in 2018, was left behind by the peloton at full speed in the final kilometers as, ahead of him, the sprint teams accelerated and Cavendish again delivered for his own team.