'I truly believe that I am the best sprinter on the planet,' says Cavendish

With 30 Tour de France stage wins to his name, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is just four behind record holder Eddy Merckx.

Despite a plethora of opportunities this year in one of the more sprinter-friendly routes in recent memory, the Manxman is unlikely to topple the Cannibal's mark in 2017 as he continues to recover from Epstein-Barr virus that has stalled his season.

"I truly believe that I am the best sprinter on the planet," Cavendish told The Times in an interview published Thursday. "Without this illness, I would be going in looking to pass the record this year."

Cavendish added four wins to his total last July, but it was a season of accomplishments that may have broken down his body to the point that made him susceptible to the virus.

In 2016 he won a world championship on the track in March, won his four stages and wore yellow at the Tour in July, took silver on the track at the Olympics and finished second to Peter Sagan in the world championship in October. Cavendish admits it was a lot to bite off in one season.

“My team manager, Rolf Aldag, even said at the time, 'You are going to be cooked next year.'" Cavendish told The Times. "But I went for it. It's just now I am paying the price."

But Cavendish said he'd do it all over again.

"My wife, Peta, when I was struggling, she was like, 'Right, if someone said at the beginning of 2016, you can do all this but you'll pay for it in 2017, would you do it?' It was a great question and I thought, 'Yeah, I would have,'" Cavendish said.

The 32-year-old sprinter has just one win so far this season, a stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour in February, and his season was stalled abruptly when a blood test after Milan San Remo revealed the problem.

Doctors ordered Cavendish to lay low and stay off his bike as the world-class athlete found himself struggling to climb a flight of stairs.

"I was absolutely on my hands and knees," he told The Times. "It was horrible. Honestly, you feel like you are never going to be able to do anything. That sounds exaggerated but when you are used to feeling tired from training and then you feel this bad and you haven't even done anything, as a professional athlete it's very hard to get your head around."

Eventually the Manxman was able to start training again, albeit with a very low heart rate that meant he had to endure some ego-shattering moments.

"I was getting passed not even by amateurs in full kit but people with their helmets back to front," Cavendish told The Times.

Cavendish was able to return to racing earlier this month at the Tour de Slovenie, where he finished 10th on the first stage and second on the last. He raced the British national championships and finished outside the time limit.

Cavendish knows he's not yet back to the form that brought him four stage wins last year, but the lure of the Tour was too great for himself or his team to pass up.

"The Tour is exposure for them and the [Qhubeka] charity," Cavendish said.

Cavendish had to consider the impact on his morale and reputation if he showed up at the Tour and could not perform as well as he has in the past, but in the end, bunch sprints are often a crapshoot and he knows there's always a chance for victory.

"The hardest thing for me is sprinting and losing," he told The Times. "Not just because it's damaging to my morale, the team's morale, but it's actually good for the other sprinters' morale and once you are on a roll at the Tour you build on that.

"I had to ask myself, 'Would I do myself more damage not winning?' As soon as we start on Saturday, a lot of journalists will forget I have been ill, that I've had glandular fever. Half won't have had it, half don't like me anyway. A few people won't even know. I could be doing myself more damage going and not winning than not going at all. I could be setting up myself to fail.

"The competitive fires are burning but I have to be realistic. It's like, you know, Ducatis are going to be faster than Hondas. I'm not firing like a Ducati right now."

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