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UTAH BEACH, France (VN) — Before the opening stage of the 2016 Tour de France, Mark Cavendish had won 26 stages in the race and had already been called the sport’s best ever sprinter — but he had never worn the Tour’s iconic yellow jersey. That changed Saturday.
The Dimension Data speedster sprinted ahead of Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step) and world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) to win his 27th Tour stage just yards away from Utah Beach, one of the famous D-Day invasion sites along the coast of Normandy. With the stage 1 victory, he took the race lead and earned the right to wear the “maillot jaune,” or yellow jersey, for the first time in his career.
Cavendish said many times that the jersey is not his goal and that winning stages is all that matters. “The stage win gets you the jersey,” he said before the race. “I have to look at it like that. My goal is to win the stage, whether it is stage 1 or 7.”
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Saturday’s victory, however, let him slide on the yellow top and move closer to the greats. His impressive palmares includes victories in Milano-Sanremo, the world championships, stages in all three grand tours, the Tour’s green jersey, and now, an additional prize.
L’Equipe newspaper had already called him the Tour’s most successful sprinter in 2012. He first won a stage in 2008 and took six victories in the 2009 edition alone en route to today’s total of 27.
Cavendish sits behind only Eddy Merckx and Bernhard Hinault as the Tour’s most successful stage winners. Merckx holds the record with 34 wins and Hinault counts one more than the 31-year-old Cavendish at 28. They were overall winners, and of course, wore the yellow jersey. Now, Cavendish stands a bit closer to those cycling stars.
“I matured a lot since ,” Cavendish said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve grown a bit, but I still have that desire to win. I still have that respect of the Tour de France. This race made my career and the yellow jersey is an honor to have.
“Team Dimension Data is a special team, with riders from Africa. It’s about the Qhubeka charity, about putting children on bicycles in the continent of Africa. There’s no better way to do that than by winning the most iconic jersey in cycling, which is the yellow jersey. Hopefully I can do this jersey some jersey some justice tomorrow.”
Cavendish surprised many with his stage win as he has not been up to his winning ways on the road since he had been preparing also for a gold medal try on the track in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August. Now that he’s win the first stage ahead Kittel, Sagan, and others like fourth-placed André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal), there seems to be no reason why he cannot win another to tie Hinault’s count or a third to move ahead.
He added, “My wife wrote me a card and said to me that ‘I know some times it might get on top of you, but these are the days that you’ll look back on and smile on in a few years. Just remember them.’ It’s true, you got to enjoy it.”