Mark Cavendish said he was chasing Eddy Merckx's all-time stage win record at the Tour. So far, his results have been dismal.
In the three sprint stages, he’s finished 36th, 35th, and 21st, respectively. Not so good for the man many call the greatest sprinter of all time. However, the Dimension Data team remains bullish on his chances as the Tour rolls on with team general manager Doug Ryder saying “we believe in him.”
Cavendish has few targets left in his career, but one remains dangling out in front, tantalizingly within reach: Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. Cavendish currently stands at 30.
“In terms of races I can physically win, I’ve pretty much done everything,” the British cyclist said before the start of the Tour. “It’s really the only target I have left. It seems so close yet it is a big distance away.”
The distance seems to be growing rather than contracting in the opening stages of this year’s Tour.
In Tuesday’s finale, a stiff headwind made for a tricky sprint. Timing was everything, and when Cavendish’s longtime lead-out man Mark Renshaw surged ahead, Cav seemed to miss the jump. Several riders, including Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) jumped ahead of Cavendish. Next, as the Manxman was already drifting backward, Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) moved across his line, bumping his handlebars. Cavendish immediately lifted a hand in frustration.
The team looked to be working cohesively in the final five kilometers to put Cavendish in a good position. In the end, however, the group splintered and Cavendish dropped out of the top 20. Still, Renshaw took some positives away from the stage.
“We rode exactly how we wanted and how we had planned this morning,” he said. “We knew the finish would be uphill so we kept him to the left side and out of trouble. We got inside the final kilometer and then he just missed the jump when the guys went. But we’re happy the team rode really well and got the positioning right.”
The team’s general manager, Doug Ryder, also put a positive spin on another disappointing result.
“It was a better performance than stages 1 and 2 when we didn’t have it together. We knew exactly where we needed to be at that roundabout with four kilometers to go. We led it through there, which was really, really good. We were hoping for a little bit more of a side-wind, but it was a dead headwind, so that was tough for us. But our guys went long and deep and that bodes well for the coming stages.”
The question remains whether Cavendish has the goods to finish off the work that his teammates put in to set him up. The Brit fought to get to the Tour de France this season after a series of crashes in the Abu Dhabi Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milano-Sanremo. Rib fractures slowed recovery from a fractured shoulder blade suffered at the 2017 Tour.
Cavendish last won in February at the Dubai Tour. Since the 2016 Tour, he has won only four races. Looking back, that season two years ago was a golden year for Cavendish, with four Tour stages and impressive results throughout.
Can he turn things around and add to his win total this year? Ryder remains confident in his star.
“Of course, he’s a champion and you don’t write off a champion,” he said. “He’s earned that status and he’s living it. You never kick a dog when it’s down or it will bite you. I think Mark’s got it mentally and hopefully as he gets through this race; he can get better and better. He’s leaner than he has been for a while and looks good. He’s just lacking a little bit at the moment. But we believe in him and hope that he feels that energy coming through.”
Andrew Hood contributed to this report from Sarzeau, France.