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An emotional Mark Cavendish celebrated the unexpected stage victory that many wanted, but few thought would happen.
The 36-year-old sprinter defied the odds in a thrilling sprint in stage 4 at the Tour de France, nearly five years after his final Tour stage victory in 2016.
The proud Manxster’s Tour career all but appeared over, but a chance return to Deceuninck-Quick-Step and a late injury to Sam Bennett opened the door for Cavendish to return to the race that marked his career.
On Tuesday, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe and Michael Mørkøv closed down a late breakaway rider and set up Cavendish for the unlikeliest win of all his 31 career Tour victories.
“This race has given my life to me,” an emotional Cavendish said. “And I’ve given my life to the Tour.”
The Cavendish victory comes following a wild and unpredictable few years in his career. Stricken with illness, Cavendish was left off the 2019 Tour team, and many thought he was washed up.
After going winless since 2018, Cavendish ended the 2020 campaign in tears at Gent-Wevelgem, thinking his career was over. During the winter, Cavendish joined Deceuninck-Quick-Step on a low-money offer, but with the chance to race with one of the top lead-out teams in the peloton.
“I’m fortunate I got another shot,” Cavendish said. “I’m living an absolute dream.”
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) June 29, 2021
Cavendish was quick to thank his teammates and team boss Patrick Lefevere, who gave Cavendish a lifeline to race in 2o21. Healthy and training again, Cavendish returned to the winner’s column at the Tour of Turkey. Another win at the Belgium tour in June cracked open the door for a return to the Tour.
An injury and backroom drama with Bennett — last year’s green jersey winner — meant that the Irishman would not be racing.
Cavendish charged through the opening to race the Tour again like he was squeezing through a hole in a bunch sprint.
“If I didn’t believe I could do it, I wouldn’t be racing my bike,” he said. “I needed someone who understands racing, and someone who understands me, and that was Patrick Lefevere.
“When I signed on, I wasn’t thinking about coming to the Tour de France. You had Sam Bennett, but I just wanted to return to this team because they were the happiest days of my career,” he said. “I needed a happy place, a team that functioned as a team, and I needed a bike that fit me. That’s why I wanted to come to Quick-Step, where I always felt believed-in.”
Last winter, Cavendish considered his options. With the health problems behind him, he still had the passion and drive to race. And he didn’t want to leave the sport without at least winning on his terms.
“This isn’t about proving anyone wrong,” Cavendish said. “But half the people in the pressroom haven’t written a good story about me in years, but I’m still here at the Tour de France. You just want to be here, and I knew I could still do it.”
Cavendish came into the sport as one of the most prodigious young sprinters in a generation. He quickly lived up to the hype, and emerged as the most dominant sprinter in Tour history.
With perhaps up to six more sprint stage opportunities left in this Tour, could Cavendish inch closer to the all-time record for stage wins held by Eddy Merckx at 34?
Cavendish just shook his head when he was asked.
“It’s only been a half-hour since I won. You’ve already forgotten how big it is to win one Tour stage if you’re asking me questions like that,” Cavendish said with trademark edge.
“It may sound silly, but this win means as much to me as my first win,” he said. “People seem to have forgotten how difficult it is to win a Tour de France stage because I’ve won 31 of them, but it’s not easy at all.”
Cavendish used to make it look easy. Now he’ll take them any way he can.
The Manxster was grateful to be back on the Tour de France winner’s podium, but with Deceuninck-Quick-Step leading him out, who says this will be his last?
The Alps and Pyrénées, not to mention a double climb of Mont Ventoux next week, might mean the Merckx record is safe. At least for now.