When Mark Cavendish finished alone and outside the time limit at La Rosière on the 2018 Tour de France, the occasion had a valedictory feel. The Manxman knew long before the finish line that he would not make the cut, and his old master Rod Ellingworth was among those to make a point of waiting by the finish line to see what many suspected might be his final act in the race that made his name.
On Sunday afternoon at Tignes, Cavendish faced a similar battle to stay within the time limit in the Alps, but his comeback to the Tour this year has struck a very different tone.
Rather than grind alone towards the summit, he had three Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates for company. And, unlike that afternoon three years ago, he came home safely inside the limit, with the green jersey still on his back after winning two stages in the opening week.
"Dries Devenyns, Tim Declercq and Michael Mørkøv could have had a relatively easy day in a big gruppetto but they stayed with me and kept me motivated through a horrendous stage. It's been incredible. If we stop now, this would be one of the nicest Tours I've been part of," Cavendish said during his press conference on Monday's rest day, though he noted that it had also been the most demanding: "I can't remember the first rest day of the Tour de France feeling like a second rest day."
Cavendish's remarkable and unexpected comeback to the Tour has seen him net stage victories in Fougères and Châteauroux, drawing him to within two wins of Eddy Merckx's record haul of 34 at La Grande Boucle. Before the Tour began, Cavendish politely made clear that discussing that topic was effectively verboten and it didn't arise during his press briefing.
He did acknowledge that he will seek to notch up a hat-trick of stage victories on this year's Tour at Valence on Tuesday given that the stage's flat profile lends itself to a bunch sprint.
Cavendish did not seem unduly concerned that the abandonment and elimination of riders like Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) would deprive Deceuninck-QuickStep of the help they needed to ensure a break didn't snatch the opportunity away from the fast men.
"There's a lot less sprinters, that's for sure, but whether that has an effect on catching the breakaway, I don't know, because there were really only two teams who were chasing the breakaway anyway," Cavendish said.
"We'll just have to see. We've got a strong group, an experienced group that knows how to control a race and we just have to hope for the best, I guess."
Cavendish has been winning Tour stages since 2008 and he has never been stinting in his praise of the teammates that helped to deliver him to victory. He acclaimed his Deceuninck-QuickStep squad with familiar enthusiasm on Monday afternoon, name-checking everyone from his lead-out man Mørkøv to world champion Julian Alaphilippe to Davide Ballerini.
"Ballo did the last kilometre on the front in Châteauroux, like that's fucking unheard of," said Cavendish, who later draped an arm around Kasper Asgreen's shoulder to illustrate his point: "I'm lucky to have these guys, that's for sure."
'Don't write Froome off'
On Saturday's opening Alpine stage to Le Grand-Bornand, Cavendish finished in the gruppetto ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), who has failed to notch up any results of note since his heavy crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné.
Cavendish alluded to his own fallow period of the previous four years when he was asked to describe how he felt at witnessing Froome's travails at this Tour up close.
"I think I can talk from personal experience: you don't write someone off," Cavendish said.
"Chris Froome has been a champion for many years and there's very, very few people in the world who can get to be that level, so people will not understand the mindset of the fight to get back to that.
"There'll always be people who can never understand what it's like to be that successful.
"Froomey's a friend of mine, but even if it was someone I didn't like… If I see somebody being able to suffer, not just physically but mentally as well, to get back to where they were, then I applaud it. It's the strongest thing you can do."
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