While much of the race fanfare will be put away for another year as the peloton parades around Paris, there is the small matter of an all-time record to be set.
After a Tour that has seen Cavendish roll back the clocks, he is on the precipice of making an indelible mark on cycling’s history books.
Sunday’s stage through Paris is Cavendish’s chance to nudge past Eddy Merckx with a 35th victory and become the rider with the most Tour de France stage wins of anyone in the race’s 118-year history.
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Should he do it, it would be in the most auspicious of settings on one of the Grand Boucle’s most iconic backdrops. He would also secure himself his second green jersey, 10 years after claiming his first, and set himself another record as the only man to win five times on the hallowed cobbles of the Champs-Élysées.
Cavendish already holds the record with four, after taking an iron grip on the prestigious stage between 2009 and 2012.
Victory on Sunday would be his first time on the podium in Paris since 2012.
The journey towards achieving the all-time stage record has sometimes felt as though it was written in a movie script so it is befitting that it will come to a head on the Champs-Élysées.
Cavendish has spent much of the race telling people not to speak of it and batting away the idea that he was even searching for the record.
“I don’t think I can ever be compared with the great Eddy Merckx, the greatest male road cyclist of all time,” he said after he equaled Merckx’s record in Carcassonne on stage 14. “We don’t have time to reflect on it. But there’s plenty of life left after this to reflect on what we’ve done and on the history we’ve made.”
However, the moment won’t be lost on Cavendish when the peloton rolls out of Chatou on Sunday afternoon.
While his victories come over less varied terrain than Merckx, as the Belgian was keen to point out in an interview last week, it is no less incredible an achievement.
Particularly when you consider the fallow years of Cavendish’s recent career.
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There was a time when it seemed as though Cavendish was winning Tour de France stages for fun, but new challengers, illness, and injury have provided plenty of obstacles for him to overcome in recent years.
His run through this year’s race has been reminiscent of his 2016 race, where he came in as an underdog in the sprint competition.
Marcel Kittel, Dylan Groenewegen, and Peter Sagan were the hot favorites that year, and few expected Cavendish to go on a marauding rampage through the sprints to claim four stage victories before leaving on the second rest day.
That run of form elevated him above French hero Bernard Hinault in the win standings and put the Manxman within spitting distance of Merckx’s record.
Back then it seemed it was only a matter of time before Cavendish would surpass the Belgian. Little did he and we know that the 2016 race would see his last win at the Tour de France for five years.
A crash with Peter Sagan in 2017 forced him to abandon after stage 5. The following year, he would depart the race like so many have throughout this year’s competition, outside the time limit on a grueling mountain stage.
His departure from the 2018 Tour de France was the beginning of a very difficult period for Cavendish. The Epstein Barr virus he had been diagnosed with in April 2017 still had a hold on him and he wouldn’t be given the all-clear until May 2019.
The Manxman was diagnosed with clinical depression soon after, in August 2018.
“I didn’t take any medication. Like, this isn’t the time or place — we’ll do a thing on it at some point — but I received help,” he said in an interview with The Times in April 2020. “I was dark. And I’m on the other side, thank you. Well, as much as I can be. I think I’ve come out of that.”
Cavendish continued to race but struggled to rediscover his winning ways. He was left out of the Tour de France for two years running and looked set to hang up his racing wheels at the end of last year.
Cavendish’s move to Deceuninck-Quick-Step over the winter has rejuvenated the sprinter and he was back on the winner’s podium by April. However, he looked set to miss this year’s Tour de France and it was a knee injury to Sam Bennett that gave him his chance.
— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) June 23, 2021
It is an opportunity he has grabbed with both hands.
“Three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have imagined this. This race is everything to me as a professional,” Cavendish said after taking his first win of the 2021 race in Fougères.
“It’s almost been forgotten how hard it is to win a Tour stage. It’s not easy at all. That’s been the hardest thing to put up with – people not understanding the sacrifices I put in to win those 30 stages. This race has given me the life I have, and I have given it the life I have. I’m just happy to be back. It sounds silly but it means so much to me. From the first time in 2008 until now. I’m living a dream.”
If the plot wasn’t quite ridiculous enough, Cavendish would go on to win in Chateauroux a few days later. The city was where Cavendish had won his first-ever Tour de France stage back in 2008.
He then equaled the Merckx record on the 13th anniversary of that first win.
If someone came to you with this script, you’d push it back and ask for something more realistic.
The question remains now, will Cavendish get his happy ever after in Paris or is this a movie with a different ending? Can one of Cavendish’s challengers usurp the resurgent champion?