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Tour de France daily digest: Mark Cavendish saves the 2021 Tour de France

Mark Cavendish now seems poised to equal or break Eddy Merckx's stage record, and the story couldn't come at a better moment.

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Wake up!

That’s right — wake up, my friends, pour yourself another café au lait, and flick on the Tour de France livestream. I know you’ve been lulled into a mid-race slumber by Tadej Pogačar’s soul-crushing dominance of the Tour’s GC battle, but listen up, we have a barnburner of a story to follow. And this story combines all of the essential elements needed for a compelling sports story.

There’s a comeback. There’s a race against history. There are sweaty man-hugs.

And at the center of this story is an improbable champion who loves to drop F-bombs on live television.

That’s right, folks, Mark Cavendish and his chase of Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour de France stage wins has breathed new life into this Tour. Should we go so far as to say it’s saved the Tour? Why yes — I’ll say that now. Cav’s pursuit of history has saved the friggin’ 2021 Tour, which was in jeopardy of becoming a one-horse snooze fest, and a race best-known for the dumbest crash in cycling history.

Come, let us all praise Cav!

On Tuesday Cavendish took his 33rd career Tour stage win after blasting to the finish line in the town of Valence at the foot of the Alps. This victory was hardly guaranteed for Cavendish, as the 192-kilometer stage featured a lumpy profile and a sprinter-killing climb just 40km from the finish.

Full disclosure: I expected to see a sweat Cav huff and puff and then get shot out of the group on the Beauregard-Baret — a climb which sounds like a hat worn by a Civil War general — but no! Overhead shots showed Cav’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates surrounding him in a protective bubble as the peloton hit the foot of the ascent. Riders from Team BikeExchange surged on the front of the group in an effort to drop Cav near the top. And while Cavendish did sag back in the group, he held tough just long enough to reach the summit.

And his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates then took over and slowed things down, giving their sprinter a break.

There’s a chance that this small moment of this year’s Tour de France may be the decisive point in Cavendish’s dogged chase of history. Why? Because Cavendish held strong on this little climb, Deceuninck-Quick-Step was then able to place its troops into formation in the frenetic push to the line, and deliver Cavendish to the sprint just 150 meters from the finish.

It’s this team strength and coordination that will make or break Cav’s chase of Merckx. It’s no wonder why Cavendish lumped plenty of praise on his troops in his post-race press conference.

“It was textbook for how a lead out works. Today was a case study, for more than even just the last kilometers,” he said. “We knew teams would try and light it up on the climbs, and it was about trying to stay together and keep me fresh, get me over the top, and then stay at the front. That’s where the likes of Tim Declercq and Dries Devenys come in. You saw Dries every single corner we were out in front, and that was Dries pulling us there. And once we lined up.”

Cav then dropped one of his trademark expletives when discussing his past struggles at the race.

“The first 20km of the first stage, I thought, what the f#$@ have I done? You just get into it, but every Tour rider when you get to Paris, you think you never want to do that again, but by the Tuesday you’re already looking forward to it the next year,” he said.

Make no mistake — Tuesday’s win marks a major turning point in Cavendish’s pursuit of the Merckx record, even if Cav himself doesn’t want to talk about it (see above). Up to this point, Cav’s stage wins have been feel-good stories unto themselves, but there’s always been the nagging sense that he would get time-cut, or lose his winning kick, as the race dragged on.

Now, Cav meeting or beating Merckx seems more likely than unlikely. This Tour has four true sprint stages remaining, and winning just one of them ties Cav with Merckx, and winning two gives Cav the record.

Two of those stages — stages 12 and 13 — come before the dreaded Pyrenées, where even the fittest sprinters face elimination from the time cut. So, according to my math, Mark Cavendish is now poised to equal or beat Eddy Merckx’s record before his true test of this year’s Tour de France begins.

And the proverbial waves have parted to give Cavendish more than a puncher’s chance at achieving this goal. Heading into the 2021 Tour de France Cavendish was just one name on a long lineup of top sprinters. Over the past week, that list has been whittled down to just one or two names. Caleb Ewan crashed out. Tim Merlier and Arnaud Demare were lost to the time cut. Nacer Bouhanni, Jasper Philipsen, and Andre Greipel don’t appear to have enough oomph in their legs. And Wout van Aert, Peter Sagan, and Michael Matthews are sharing their respective team strengths with other riders.

That’s right, Cavendish is in the perfect position to break history now.

And let me tell you, history isn’t often made at the Tour de France, which is celebrating its 108th edition this year. We came into 2021 with our eyes on a completely different comeback story with totally different historical significance — that being Chris Froome’s attempt to join Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain, and Bernard Hinault as a five-time winner. A year ago, had you told me that the 2021 Tour de France would be saved by a story combining comeback and history, I would have absolutely said it would be Froome making headlines.

But no, it’s Cav. And let’s thank the cycling gods for Cav and this story.

Should he meet or surpass Merckx, then the 2021 Tour de France will go down as the coronation of Mark Cavendish as the race’s greatest stage champion.

Hey, let’s take a look at how social media reacted to today’s Cav fest.

Social media reacts

Mark Cavendish as a Power Ranger? I’ve seen worse comparisons.

It IS coming home! And by that I mean the green jersey (and not the World Cup)

Speaking of soccer, our fan Matthew King has the proper perspective on Cav’s place in sports right now.

Sadhbh O’Shea for the win once again

This guy isn’t wrong: