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Three hard days in the Pyrénées stand between him and a chance to set the all-time record.
With possible sprints in stage 19 and again in stage 21 in Paris, Cavendish refuses to mention the number 35.
“I fear every time cut,” Cavendish said Monday. “We have to try to get through as best as possible. The toughest ones for us are hopefully behind us.”
Yet when pressed about 35, a victory that would put Cavendish in a class of his own, he demurred much like he has been since the Tour started and the chatter of the all-time record heated up with each victory.
“It’s the same ambition to win one more as it was to win one 13 years ago,” he said during a Zoom call. “Every opportunity there is for a sprint I’d like to win. That’s why we’re here to try to perform. There is no sentiment to the thinking of wanting to win, but just wanting to win every time the situation arises.
“Everybody would like to leave a mark on the world if they could at some point, but it has to be a good mark, something that can inspire people, and give them hope and joy.”
Getting the call-up to start the Tour de France
At the beginning of the season, Cavendish never expected to race the Tour, but the race unfolded like a dream for the 36-year-old.
It all began when there were rumors that Sam Bennett, last year’s green jersey winner, would not be racing.
“I found out the week before the Tour started. Wilfried Peters called me, and we didn’t know what was happening with Sam Bennett’s knee,” Cavendish said. “I was training with the possibility of going, but with the 95 percent possibility that I wouldn’t be going.
“This was the least-stressed I’ve ever been before a Tour because I didn’t think I was going. Because there was no pressure, I could just get on with my training,” he said. “I got the strongest lead-out train by a long ways in the world right here.”
Cavendish never doubted he could win a stage
“We had to try,” he said. “I knew I could win one sprint, but it wasn’t until we put it into practice that we could win one. You don’t come to the Tour without believing you cannot win a stage.”
“If I wasn’t able to win a Tour de France, I wouldn’t be in the Tour de France. Whether I knew I could win four, I don’t know, but I knew I could be competitive,” he said. “At Deceuninck-Quick-Step, you cannot come here in without anything less than performance. It’s one of the strongest teams across all terrains and there is no space for trial. You have to come knowing what you needed to do in training to be able to perform.”
Also read: ‘Don’t ask me about the Merckx record’
Cavendish surprised even himself by reeling off four sprint stage victories, with each one pulling him closer to the Merckx record.
“All four wins have been kind of different,” he said. “There were ones when we had exemplary lead-outs … and there were others we improvised. The last one in Carcassonne was like a ‘classic’ in the last 15km of the race. That’s why I ripped my legs off, because I had to finish that off.”
Cavendish is quick to lavish praise on his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates.
“What can be said is that I wouldn’t have done it without these lads behind me.”
Finishing in the ‘gruppetto’ and chasing green
Cavendish surprised many by finishing safely within the time cut in all the major mountain stages so far.
It’s been close — especially on the brutal mountain stage to Tignes when he celebrated at the line as he had just won a sprint — but the team is putting three to four riders with him on each stage to make sure he makes it to the line within the time limit.
“It’s relentless [in the gruppetto]. I’m lucky I have the guys with me,” he said Monday. “It’s become more scientific, and you can plan how much power you can use and you can ride within yourself. That doesn’t mean you’re not on it all day. If we can get through the next three days, hopefully we should be OK.”
Cavendish holds a comfortable lead in the green jersey hunt and only needs to make it to Paris to win it for the second time of his career.
“The green [jersey] is something through my whole career that the stages would take precedent and the green would come from that, and it’s the same now,” he said. “It just came as a bonus. If we continue winning the sprints, we will arrive in Paris with green.”
No signs of stopping now
Six months ago, Cavendish thought his career was over.
Now he’s flying high, and hinted he wants to continue racing at least through next year.
Cavendish is on a one-year deal with the team, and said, “I have to talk to this guy,” and pointed to team boss Patrick Lefevere, but added he wants to keep going.
“I’ve thought about it,” he said of retirement. “Right now, I just love it, I am so happy to ride my bike again, I am so happy in this environment, but I know I cannot do it forever. I’ve shown I am still competitive, I’d love to carry on as long as my body will let me.”
Cavendish is hoping at the very least that will be all the way to Paris, where the Champs-Élysées and its traditional sprint finish, awaits.