Publicly, at least, Mark Cavendish has insisted throughout this Tour de France that talk of matching Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins was verboten. In private, however, he may have allowed himself to dream.
Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Davide Ballerini suggested as much when he paused in the mixed zone on the Boulevard Barbès in Carcassonne minutes after Cavendish had claimed his fourth stage victory of this Tour to equal Merckx’s record.
“I think from the first stage victory ... he believed in it,” Ballerini said. “He believed in the team. He believed in everybody and in the staff, and he thought we could do this.”
Ballerini sprinted to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory in his own right in February, but he has served as part of Cavendish’s lead-out train here. He took up the reins with such force in the final kilometre in Carcassonne that he briefly detached himself from the front of the race before Michael Mørkøv piloted Cavendish to the line.
“It’s unbelievable, really unbelievable, I think nobody thought about this for the Tour,” said Ballerini. “He decided on the last moment to come to the Tour, so we are really, really happy.”
Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere bowled into the mixed zone shortly afterwards. His team lost its number one sprinter Sam Bennett to injury shortly before the Tour and nobody could have expected the next man up to serve as such a remarkable substitute.
Cavendish’s career looked to be drawing to a close last winter when Lefevere offered him a WorldTour berth, after all. The 36-year-old surprised by notching up four wins at the Tour of Turkey in April, but even then, a return to the Tour seemed beyond his reach. And yet Cavendish has now contested four bunch sprints at this Tour and won all four. At that rate, few would bet against him overtaking Merckx’s record at Libourne or Paris next week.
“I hope so. It would be fantastic, even if I’m a big fan of Eddy. But records are there to be broken,” said Lefevere.
“When you’ve been through what Cavendish has been through, you don’t have to win anymore, but you can win. That’s a big difference to before. He’s the same rider, but less stressed.”
Cavendish’s victory on stage 13 saw him stretch his advantage in the points classification to some 101 points over Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), who could only manage 12th in Carcassonne. Given Cavendish’s hefty lead, it seems that only the time limit in the Pyrenees can deny him a second green jersey in Paris, fully a decade after his first.
“It’s more than two years since he did a Grand Tour, so you don’t know how he’s going to live that,” said Lefevere.
Cavendish’s hold on the green jersey was in his lead-out man Mørkøv’s mind as they thundered towards the line. After swinging off to allow his leader through, the Dane made one further effort to snatch second place on the stage away from Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix).
“No, I didn’t brake,” Mørkøv laughed when he was asked if he had slowed to ensure Cavendish equalled Merckx’s record.
“I was leading the race until 50m to go but I was really aware that Cavendish was just on my wheel and he was going to take the stage. I squeezed in and I took some points from some other sprinters and secured his jersey even more. But I also have to say that, for me personally, to take second place in a Tour de France stage is also a top result.”
Like Mark Renshaw before him, the understated Mørkøv seems to serve as the ice to Cavendish’s fire in the final kilometre. Although Deceuninck-QuickStep’s train had led beneath the flamme rouge, Mørkøv was compelled to recalibrate the lead-out on the long drag towards the line.
“It was really messy with the last left-hand corner, we got mixed up with a few teams,” said Mørkøv. “Ballerini went a bit too early in my opinion so I just left him and I tried to get a guy from DSM in between. I just had to improvise a bit there and then [Ivan] Garcia Cortina went early, and I went into his slipstream and he pretty much led us out.
“I can understand why Cav pushed questions about the record away. It’s something you don’t want to play mind games about. But now he has equalled Eddy Merckx. Even if I wasn’t his teammate, I’d still think it’s special that a rider from this time has equalled Eddy Merckx.”
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