Tour de France 2021 - Mark Cavendish: More stage wins and the green jersey not beyond Manx Missile
As Mark Cavendish capped a sensational Tour de France comeback with an emotional victory in Fougères on Tuesday, Felix Lowe asks just how the race’s new green jersey can go in a Tour he never expected to ride, let alone star in? Cavendish took a 31st victory at the Tour to close on Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. Is that target now possible?
'What a hero!' - Cavendish claims stunning win on Stage 4
When Mark Cavendish won his first Tour de France stage in 2008 two-thirds of the current peloton had not yet turned 18, seven riders had not yet hit double figures, while yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel was just a 13-year-old yet to try his hand at cycle-cross.
Thirteen years on – and five after his previous visit to the top of a Tour podium – Cavendish has now notched his 31st victory on the world’s biggest bike race, edging him ever closer to Eddy Merckx’s landmark tally of 34 Tour stage wins. Any talk of Cavendish rewriting the history books one month ago would have been met with mild derision – but after Tuesday’s wonderful performance, even the Cannibal himself may lose some sleep tonight.
"Half the press room hasn't written a good story in the time since I last won a stage," Cavendish joked to the gathered media after his stirring win ahead of Nacer Bouhanni and Jasper Philipsen. It was a veiled barb at some of the criticism he'd received over the last five years - a suggestion that perhaps some of those sticking the knife in hadn't been at the top of their game, either.
Well, after a long and tortuous road back, Cavendish restored the infectious feel-good factor to the press corps - many of whom were possibly not even in the business the last time Cav stage on the Tour and donned the green jersey in 2016
After four wins at Dimension Data that summer, Cavendish’s career nosedived after he contracted Epstein-Barr Virus. His battle back to fitness was further derailed by bouts of depression and an incident of concussion, his winless 2020 season at Bahrain-McLaren looking not so much like the last chance saloon as the in-your-dreams disco.
‘So special!’ – Tearful Cavendish celebrates with teammates
But the 36-year-old’s victory on Tuesday was Cavendish at his very best. With lone leader Brent van Moer (Lotto Soudal) clinging on up the road, Deceuninck-QuickStep had to use Michael Morkov to drag Cav back into contention, before Julian Alaphilippe – the Frenchman whose green jersey now belongs to Cavendish – dropped off his man on the back wheel of Philipsen.
Cav still had it all to do. But he kept his cool – even when boxed in between the sinking Van Moer and Cees Bol (Team DSM). Emerging through this mouse hole, Cav used his experience and supreme kick to soar past the rider he denied on four occasions during April’s Tour of Turkey – where the first signs of a potential Tour comeback were first mooted – and hold off a late rampage from Nacer Bouhanni.
So, now he’s got that comeback win, how far can Cavendish now go in this Tour de France?
'It's a real dream now' - Why Cavendish CAN beat Merckx’s record
With six more potential sprints in this year’s Tour, Cavendish and Quick-Step will be licking their lips – especially given the withdrawal of Caleb Ewan, the sprinter most similar to the Tour’s current second most winningest rider.
“He will be [licking his lips] but he’s got to get to them, of course,” said Dan Lloyd, with reference to the upcoming stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, either side of that double ascent of Mont Ventoux.
He hasn’t done any mountainous stages this year. I’m sure he’s been training his sprint a lot. Given he wasn’t expecting to be on the Tour, I’m not sure how much training he’s done on the climbs. But he’s a class act – he knows how to get through the mountains. He’s done it for years when he was never a climber. He’s got a lot of opportunities to pick up more wins and more points in that green jersey classification.
Given QuickStep were – until 10 days ago – planning on going to the Tour with Irish sprinter Sam Bennett hunting the stage wins that would bring him a second green jersey, the fact that Cavendish is back on the Tour with a win and that same maillot vert on his shoulders already vindicates the huge gamble that manager Patrick Lefevere took in recalling the veteran sprinter after three years away from the Tour.
“He doesn’t need to do anymore,” Lloyd told Kelly and host Orla Chennaoui on The Breakaway. “He’ll want more. We’ll want to see more from him. But he could go home tomorrow and that would be the perfect ending to the Mark Cavendish career and story. But it hasn’t finished yet and I’m sure there are another couple of chapters to go.”
That first chapter could come on Thursday at Châteauroux – where Cavendish’s first ever Tour success came in Stage 5 of the 2008 Tour. What a story that would make. Before then, Alaphilippe could even be back in yellow following Wednesday’s 26.2km time trial – the Frenchman just eight seconds down on Mathieu van der Poel on GC, albeit with Belgium’s Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) lurking with intent 23 second behind.
Cavendish will then have to survive three days in the Alps where the like of Morkov and Davide Ballerini will turn from sprint pilots into gruppetto companions for a rider for whom mountains have always been a struggle, but rarely an insurmountable one.
Get through the Alps and Cavendish will have a chance to compete with the other sprinters in Stage 10 to Valence ahead of that brutal stage that goes up Ventoux twice. The next day, the race goes to Nîmes – another city where Cavendish has won before – ahead of another sprint stage to Carcassonne. This means that, on paper, Merckx’s record may well be equalled before the race even hits the Pyrenees.
'I was doubting it' - Kelly analyses Cavendish sprint win on Stage 4
And should Cav survive five days of climbs, he’ll be rewarded with two more chances to stretch his legs in a sprint either side of the deciding time trial – at Libourne in Stage 19 and then on the Champs-Elysées on the final day.
In short: there is no shortage of stages which Cavendish could win – especially a confident Cavendish surrounded by the stellar team that he has. But we must also consider his rivals as well as those mountains. Bouhanni’s second place at Fougères was his best ever finish on the Tour, one day after his previous best ever finish when he came third at Pontivy. The progression is there for all to see and so it’s only logical that the Arkea-Samsic rider goes one better at some point.
Then there’s Arnaud Demare, the former French champion, who twice has now been thwarted in the sprints. Caught out by a crash on Monday, the Groupama-FDJ sprinter had an off-day on Tuesday. But he has too much class not to be a factor again soon.
And after their experiment with Philipsen backfired in Stage 4, you can bet Alpecin-Fenix will be going back all-in for Stage 3 winner Tim Merlier for the next flat finish. Sonny Colbrelli, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews and Bol all have a win in their legs – while Van Aert hasn’t yet even contested a finish.
Cavendish is the man of the moment – quite rightly – and his 31st victory has given fans fresh hope of seeing him close in on Merckx. Two more wins – at least – are not beyond him before we even get to the Alps. And besides the small matter of that gruelling five-day stretch in the Pyrenees, Cavendish would be a good bet for the green jersey too.
Beat the time cuts and we could be treated to the thrilling possibility of Cavendish drawing level – or even surpassing – Merckx’s record on the Champs-Elysées. LeMond vs Fignon in 1989 aside, you'd be hard pressed finding a more emotional ending to a Tour than that. It would also grand a golden opportunity for cycling's best ever sprinter – one who has now won against three different generations of rivals – to retire on the highest of pedestals.