Stop the clock. Turn back time. Six years after Mark Cavendish won in Fougères during his last spell at QuickStep, the 36-year-old won again in the same fortified Breton town to complete his remarkable comeback to cycling’s top table in what is proving to be an unbelievable Indian Summer for the Manx sprinter.
Back on the Tour for the first time in three years, Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) ended a five-year drought on the world’s biggest bike race in true nail-biting fashion – soaring past Belgium’s Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and holding off a late surge from France’s Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic) after lone escapee Brent van Moer (Lotto Soudal) was swept up in dramatic fashion just metres from the finish.
Cavendish’s 31st victory on the Tour saw him leapfrog French teammate Julian Alaphilippe to the top of the green jersey standings as Carlton Kirby declared "the magician is back" on Eurosport commentary.
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"I don't know what to say. Just being here is special enough. I never thought I'd get to come back to this race. So many people didn't believe in me – but these guys do," an emotional Cavendish said before praising Deceuninck-QuickStep for giving him the opportunity to return to the fold after years struggling to replicate his commanding form of old.
After a long battle to overcome Epstein-Barr Virus, Cavendish was given a lifeline from manager Patrick Lefevre after a barren year at Bahrain-McLaren in 2020. And after winning four stages on the Tour of Turkey, Cavendish was a late call-up to QuickStep’s squad for the Tour after last year’s green jersey, the Irishman Sam Bennett, injured his knee in training.
Unable to contest the sprint on Monday’s crash-strewn finale to Stage 3 after breaking four spokes in his front wheel, Cavendish proved their was life in the old dog yet after turning back the clocks with a vintage display against all odds.
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Once his teammates held helped reel in lone leader Van Moer in the closing moments of the 150km stage from Redon, Cavendish kept his cool and used all his experience and tactical nous to finish off the job – despite at one point being seriously boxed in between the slowing Van Moer and Dutchman Cees Bol of Team DSM.
"This team have some of the best riders in the sport and the stars aligned for me,” Cavendish said after bushing away the tears. “After so many years it's nice to have some good luck for a change.”
Bouhanni’s second place was his best finish in the Tour to date – and perhaps signs of what’s to come – while third-place Philipsen was unable to deliver Alpecin-Fenix their third successive win following victories for Mathieu van der Poel and Tim Merlier. Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) completed the top five.
Dutchman Van der Poel – who was just 13 years old when Cavendish won his first stage on the Tour in 2008 – retained the yellow jersey ahead of Wednesday’s time trial, where second-place Alaphilippe will look to overturn an eight-second deficit to return to the top of the general classification.
In the wake of Monday’s catalogue of crashes, the peloton staged a rather half-hearted protest about rider safety at kilometre zero after German veteran Andre Greipel came to the fore. Once the race finally got going, two riders went clear in a seemingly forlorn attempt to defy the teams of the sprinters.
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With Australia’s Caleb Ewan not starting the stage owing to a broken collarbone sustained from his crash on the home straight on Monday, it was no surprise to see Lotto Soudal attempt to recalibrate by placing a man out ahead. This was that man Van Moer, a stage winner at the Dauphine, who was joined by France’s Pierre-Luc Perichon (Cofidis) in a two-man move whose advantage did not exceed the four-minute mark.
The gap had dropped to just over a minute when Van Moer won the intermediate sprint while, behind, Cavendish signalled his intent by bounding out of teammate Michael Morkov’s wheel to take maximum points for third place in the peloton.
Van Moer soloed clear inside the final 15km and, with the teams of the sprinters easing up behind, the Belgian managed to put on a show as he looked to pull off a surprise. His gap was still 40 seconds with 5km remaining as his Lotto Soudal teammates did their best to disrupt the chase behind.
But as the race entered Fougères, the sprinters’ teams finally got their act together in a last-ditch attempt to stifle the usurper out ahead. The chase meant Deceuninck-QuickStep had to burn their matches earlier than usual to help neutralise Van Moer, with Cavendish forced to rely on some superb assistance from Alaphilippe in the final kilometre to get into position ahead of the finish.
Van Moer came agonisingly close, the 23-year-old coming within 175 metres of a stage victory in his maiden Tour. His sudden easing up forced Cavendish to brake hard and slip through a tight gap while trying to keep Philipsen’s wheel. It was testament to his strength of character and skills as a bike rider than Cavendish was able to power to a victory that outdid even Van der Poel’s win at Mur-de-Bretagne in the sentimental stakes.
Now just three wins away from levelling Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour stage wins, Cavendish has written himself back into history and set things up nicely ahead of the remainder of the race. Before he has a chance to double up at Châteauroux – where he took his first Tour win 13 years ago – Cavendish will take a back set during Wednesday’s 27.2km time trial to Laval, where the GC favourites will face their first big showdown.
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