Earlier in this Tour de France, Patrick Lefevere floated the idea that Mark Cavendish might sign off on his career in the grandest of circumstances by breaking Eddy Merckx's record of stage victories on the Champs-Élysées.
The numbers now align for that unique farewell next Sunday, but Cavendish is reluctant to exit the stage now that he has apaprently rediscovered the vim of old. After clocking up just two wins in four years, the 36-year-old has notched up nine this season, including an unexpected four victories on this Tour alone.
Last October, Cavendish worried that his career had already come to an end, but he eventually brokered a minimum wage deal to continue for one more year with Deceuninck-QuickStep. Yet while Lefevere suggested his rider could bow out in glory in Paris, Cavendish stated his intention to prolong his career further during Deceuninck-QuickStep's rest day press conference on Monday.
"I've thought about it. I've got to talk to this man," Cavendish said, nodding towards Lefevere. "I just love it. I'm just so happy riding my bike again, and I'm so happy in this environment.
"I can't carry on doing it forever, but I still love it and I've shown I'm still competitive. I'd like to carry on. I love riding my bike. I can carry on doing it as long as my body will let me."
On Monday, Lefevere announced that his Deceuninck-QuickStep team would race under the name of QuickStep-AlphaVinyl in 2022, but he refused to respond when asked to confirm reports that he had persuaded Soudal to leave Lotto and come on board as a sponsor in 2023.
"I need to speak for 22, not for 23," Lefevere said. "Please respect what we announce and if you want to write other things, feel free. I don't answer."
Battling the time cut
When this Tour began, Cavendish refused to dwell on the significance of chasing Merckx's record, and now that he has equalled the mark, he appears equally reluctant to discuss the prospect of surpassing it. The sprinters will have two more opportunities at this Tour, at Libourne on stage 19 and Paris on the final day, but Cavendish insisted that he was thinking merely of his next win rather than a potential 35th win.
"The ambition to win is the same now as it was when I was trying win my first one 13 years ago," Cavendish said. "Every opportunity there is, I'd like to win a sprint. But there's no sentiment: it's about wanting to win when the situation arises."
Cavendish's haul of stage victories on this Tour has also seen him build a virtually unbridgeable lead in the points classification. He is 72 points clear of Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and it appears that only the time limit in the high mountains can possibly deny him a second victory in the competition, fully a decade after his first.
On Sunday in Andorra, Cavendish had almost ten minutes to spare on the time cut, but three more days in the Pyrenees await.
"I'm nervous every day for the time limit, but there's nothing we can do about it, we just have to try and get through as best as possible," Cavendish said. "I don't like to pre-empt how the stages are going to go, but the toughest ones for us are hopefully past, though that doesn't mean it's easy.
"It's a common misconception that the gruppetto just rides in laughing and joking with each other but it's relentless, you know. I'm just lucky I have guys who stay with me and it's become a lot more kind of scientific, so you can kind of plan what kind of power-to-weight you can stay at and figure out how much you can lose on each part of the stage. But you're still on it all day and this is probably the hardest Tour de France I've ever done. But hopefully we should be ok."
Cavendish has won all four bunch sprints he has contested on this Tour and on most of those occasions, his chain unshipped beyond the finish line. The fault, it appears, lay not in his equipment but in his own style of riding.
"The chain thing has happened my whole career, it's not to do with equipment. It's more to do with how I ride a bike. I just stop pedalling very quickly when I cross the line, and it's just physics," he said. "Specialized in the past did testing on how I ride a bike and I ride it very differently to a lot of other bike riders. It's not something I worry about it."