With his second victory in three days, Cavendish is suddenly just two wins short of Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour de France stage victories.
Six months ago, Cavendish thought his career was over. Now, six stages into the 2021 Tour, he’s knocking on the door of one of cycling’s most elusive marks.
“Don’t say the name! Don’t say the name!” Cavendish said after winning stage 6. “I’m not thinking about anything. I just won a stage in the Tour de France, and that’s what people work their whole lives for.”
Dejà vú in Châteauroux
Cavendish turned back the pages Thursday to kick to victory number 32 in Châteauroux, one of the famous sprint-finish towns in Tour history. Cavendish won here twice before, in 2008 and 2011, and made it look easy.
The Manxster even brandished the same victory salute — both hands on his helmet in disbelief and joy — as he used in 2008 when he won on the same finishing straight for the first time.
“When I hear Châteauroux, I always remember my first Tour de France stage win,” he said. “It’s special to win here. Cipollini won here in 1998, it’s a big town for sprinters. It’s a massive, old-school Tour de France sprint. I remember being a kid watching Cipollini, Zabel, Tom Steels. This is like Bordeaux and Paris. It’s a big sprinting town in the Tour de France, and it’s an honor I’ve won them all.”
Thanks to another top lead-out from Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Cavendish jumped off the wheel of Michael Mørkøv and latched onto Alpecin-Fenix.
Cavendish then showed the speed he’s lacked for years, and jumped clear in the final 100 meters to win. Despite some shoulder-bumping, the victory stood.
Just don’t ask him about Merckx
Thursday’s victory counted for number 32.
That’s only two shy of the all-time mark set by Merckx.
“Please don’t ask me that question,” Cavendish said on French TV, when, in fact, they did ask the question. “I just won my 50th stage in a grand tour, isn’t that enough?”
Cavendish doesn’t want to talk about it, but everyone knows it’s on his mind.
Teammates say Cavendish doesn’t want to speak about it for fear of jinxing it or sounding too haughty. Cavendish respects the historical marks of cycling’s history, and insisted he is only taking it one day at a time.
“It’s a real dream now. Mark knows he can beat these guys,” said ex-pro Sean Kelly. “Now he’s done it, now he’s got the confidence and he has the team around him, that record – he very much capable of getting it.”
His boss Patrick Lefevere said don’t count anything out with Cavendish, who beat back Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) in a mad dash to the line.
“Eight months ago, Mark didn’t even have a team,” Lefevere said. “Anything is possible with Mark. We didn’t expect to bring him, but now he is here, there are no limits.”
One big problem are the mountains. With the Alps looming this weekend and a double-climb assault on Mont Ventoux next week, Cavendish was time-cut in the Alps in 2018, the last time he raced the Tour.
Cavendish admitted he didn’t do any specific training on his climbing, but will try to find the gruppetto and stay in the game.
Missing a chance to sprint against Caleb Ewan
Cavendish also said he’s missing a chance to square off against Caleb Ewan, who crashed out in stage 3.
Ewan is emerging as one of the fastest of today’s generation, and Cavendish said he wishes the Australian was still in the race.
“I’m a massive fan of these young guys. It’s an honor to race again them,” he said. “I am so sad my friend Caleb isn’t here. I wanted to sprint against him head-to-head, and that would have been beautiful for the Tour de France as well.”
The next sprint?
Cavendish said don’t count on it Friday, the Tour’s longest stage with a very hilly and demanding finale. Stage 10 into Valence next Tuesday could be another mass gallop if the sprint teams collaborate.
Cavendish’s renaissance is certainly stoking interest in the sprint stages as well as the Merckx record — just don’t ask him about it.