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Mark Cavendish rolls back the years with 31st Tour de France win

Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) after winning stage 4 at the Tour de France
Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) after winning stage 4 at the Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images)

A fresh chapter in Mark Cavendish’s remarkable comeback in the 2021 Tour de France was written on Tuesday afternoon when the Deceuninck-QuickStep racer rolled back the years and stormed across the line a full bike-length ahead of his closest rival, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), at Fougères.

The setting, where Cavendish claimed his last Tour de France stage win with Deceuninck-QuickStep back in 2015, could hardly have been more appropriate, and on Tuesday, Cavendish’s blistering, final acceleration saw the 36-year-old live up to his past success in full. 

Although he constantly insists - as he did in the post-stage press conference - that winning just one stage in the Tour is enough of a success in anybody’s career, his total win count in the last 15 years remains staggering: 31 stages of the Tour de France are now in his palmares, as well 152 victories in his career, 49 Grand Tour wins, and, for that matter, six first places this year alone.

Now leading the Tour's points ranking, which he won in the Tour a decade ago, Cavendish looked visibly delighted as he accepted the green jersey on the podium, and there was perhaps some amazement in his expression, too. After all, as he told French TV, “three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have imagined this. This race is everything to me.”

Cavendish and his team faced a more practical obstacle to success in the closing kilometres as the courageous Lotto Soudal breakaway rider, Brent Van Moer, refused to throw in the towel, clinging on to within sight of the line.

“I thought with ten to go that was it, we weren’t going to get him,” Cavendish told reporters afterwards in a press conference that contained many, if not all, of the ingredients of the Manx rider’s previous 30 in the Tour. “You got GC guys and teams trying to get in front of the narrow roads, but then they don’t pull, they just get in position and stay there.

“We were stressing a bit trying to get guys forward to pull again, and we had to wait until we were on the big road until it ignited again.

“But it just shows how you can come up with a plan, and we came up with a plan this morning, and it shows how well my team can adapt when you just throw that plan out of the window and adapt to the situation.”

Teammate Davide Ballerini broke a spoke with a few kilometres to go, but Cavendish said the team were quick to rethink their last kilometres' strategy despite lacking a key support rider, with Julian Alaphilippe working hard to bring back the breakaway. The next step towards bringing him to the front came courtesy of Michael Mørkøv, who sacrificed his lead-out energy to put Cavendish on the right wheel he needed to fight for a place in the sprint

“Then I had to use the other teams, I needed a bit of luck because there were bodies coming backwards in the final and I had to go the long way round,” Cavendish recounted.

“But I had fire in my eyes. The last time I did this finish I had fire in my eyes, too, it hadn’t been a successful Tour for me and it’s just fitting that the last win with Deceuninck-QuickStep is here in Fougères and my first is here, too, in the same place.”

A look back

Asked when he was looking back at his career in a couple of decades, whether such a standout win would rate as one of the most special, Cavendish preferred to look at Tuesday’s victory in the context of his career, and how much Tour stage wins have meant to him since his first, when he pounded across the finish line in the blue of Colombia-High Road way back in 2008.

“In Chateauroux, where we go on Thursday, I tasted victory in the Tour for the first time and it was a race that I grew up dreaming of. And every single time I’ve stood on the podium since then it’s been the same,” he explained.

“It’s almost been forgotten how hard it is to win a Tour stage because I’ve won 30 of them. But it’s not easy, at all, you know? That’s been the hardest thing that I’ve had to cope with the people not understanding the sacrifices I’ve put in to win those 30 stages.

“I’m just fortunate I’ve had another shot. This race has given me the life I have and I’ve given it the life I have. From the first time in 2008 until now, I’m living a dream,” Cavendish said, adding number 31 on Tuesday.

As for what caused ‘the fire in his eyes’ and whether it was due to those who hadn’t understood Cavendish’s difficulties in the last few years and if that lack of comprehension had impacted on him, Cavendish denied that was the case, but using a sweeping generalisation about the media on the race, to make his point. 

“It’s not about proving someone wrong,” he said, before adding, “it’s nice to prove someone wrong. Anyway, half that press room hasn’t written a good story for longer than I’ve not won a bike race but they’re still here at the Tour de France.

“It’s not about proving anybody wrong, you just want to be here. And I wanted to be here for myself. I just needed someone who understands racing and that knows me as a person and that was Patrick Lefevere.” 

He then also thanked his wife, his coach and his team again and said, “I was proving to them why they should believe in me more than the people that didn't believe me, if that makes sense.”

As expressive as ever in a press conference, the idea whether he might now have Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stages in his sights brought an abrupt dismissal from the Isle of Manx racer of the question and a lengthy pause. 

“I spoke to [stage 3 winner] Tim Merlier [of Alpecin-Fenix] yesterday and asked if his career had changed through one stage win. That’s one Tour stage win. It’s only been half an hour since I’ve won and you’ve already forgotten how big it is to win one Tour stage if you’re asking questions like that, I’m afraid.”

On a much less prickly note, Cavendish was also asked if he believed back in December, when he joined Deceuninck-QuickStep, that he could shine again in the largest race in the Tour de France, something he said he thought he could do, but “I didn’t have the belief I would be.”

“You don’t sign for Deceuninck-QuickStep with Sam Bennett in the team who won the green jersey and two stages last year, thinking you’re going to the Tour. I literally signed because I knew these were the happiest days of my career when I was here and I wanted to be in a happy environment because when I’ve been happiest is when I’ve  got my best results. So it just played hand in hand.” 

And on Tuesday, the proof was very much plain to see.

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.