Mark Cavendish cannot ignore the call of the Tour de France and a chance to match Eddy Merckx’s stage win record, and will take his 11th career start despite being far from top form.
Cavendish’s season-long bout with the Epstein-Barr virus kept him sidelined for much of the first half of the year, but with 30 career Tour stage-wins under his belt — four shy of the all-time record held by Merckx — he will start this weekend.
Cavendish, who has only raced four days since mid-March, said the allure of the Tour was too much to pass by.
“If I am being totally honest, had this not been the Tour de France we may have collectively taken a different approach with regards to my inclusion,” Cavendish said in a Dimension-Data release Monday. “I feel that I owe it to myself, the team, our sponsors and most importantly to the Tour itself given its history and everything that it stands for — as well as the emotional attachment I have for it — to give it my best and to put everything I have in to trying to help the team.”
Cavendish, 32, has just one victory in 2017. After Milano-Sanremo, doctors confirmed he was suffering from a form of glandular fever. Team officials gave their superstar sprinter plenty of time to recover as best he could, and he returned to racing on June 15 for the four-stage Tour of Slovenia. A second-place result on the final stage was a sign of encouragement.
Cavendish enjoyed a banner haul at the Tour last year, taking four stage victories before pulling out early to prepare for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. With the Merckx record within sight and his unabashed love of the Tour, Cavendish said he didn’t want to miss a chance to at least line up Saturday in Düsseldorf.
“It’s been a difficult few months for me on the back of the illness that set me back earlier on in the season,” Cavendish said. “Despite this setback and my lack of race time, I’ve worked incredibly hard both to ensure I could firstly recover from the illness as well as then aiming to build my fitness up as much as possible in order to start the Tour.”
Whether that’s enough to win at the Tour, against the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) remains to be seen. Cavendish has been known to have the ability to win races even when he’s not in top shape, but this year’s sprint field at the Tour looks deeper than ever.
Joining him will be longtime leadout men Mark Renshaw and Bernard Eisel, as well as of Edvald Boasson Hagen, Serge Pauwels, recently crowned British champion Steve Cummings, and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg. Jaco Venter and Scott Thwaites will make their debut appearances for the South African-registered team, which is back for its third Tour start.
The team confirmed it will focus on specific stages for victories in sprints and breakaways, not the GC.