Published on 17 Sep 2021 1:27 pm (UK Time)
Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile, the man whose career he himself thought was over….yet here he is, in his 13th Tour de France, and just two wins away from equalling Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 wins stage wins.
Cavendish was not even meant to be at this year’s Tour. Instead, last year’s green jersey winner, Sam Bennett, pulled out of the Quick-Step selection to participate in the Tour, citing knee troubles.
However, to say that Cavendish’s form has returned out of nowhere is far from correct.
This season alone, he has finished on the podium on 13 occasions (including his two stage wins at the Tour thus far) – he has also won seven times, including four stages at the Tour of Turkey in April. The last time he did as well as that was in 2016, finishing 19 times on the podium, and winning nine stages and races.
The question now is if he can first equal and then overhaul Eddy’s record – it is not something that he likes to talk about, nor is it something that is discussed within the Wolfpack.
Five more chances
Mathematically, technically, hypothetically, Cavendish can be the new holder of the record of stage wins at the Tour.
There are five flat stages left that suit sprinters very well – therefore, he has five chances to beat that record.
It also helps that French sprinters Arnaud Demare and Bryan Coquard are no longer in the event, nor is stage three winner Tim Merlier.
Cavendish won his 31st stage from Redon to Fougeres (150.4 kilometres), a city that he has won in previously, stage seven in 2015.
It was the site of his first ever victory in 2008 (stage five) and he won there again in the 2011 edition (stage seven) – the 17th of his Tour de France career, and halfway to equalling Merckx’s record.
In fact, the only city or finish where he has come in the first place more, has been Paris (four times).
Number 33 is up for grabs in Valence – a city where he has not finished well. In 2015, he finished 151st, although that stage was categorised as a medium mountain stage.
In 2018, he failed to finish within the time limit of the mountain stage from Albertville to La Rosiere (stage 11), so he never made it to Valence that year (stage 13).
At 191 kilometres long, this stage is seven kilometres longer than the average distance of his stage wins at the Tour (including this year’s stages at 150- and 160-kilometres long).
The hardest part of this stage comes in at approximately 50 kilometres, where the peloton will climb up a 7.4-kilometre climb at 2.8% (Col de Couz).
Once they have crested that (622 metres), there are green jersey points up for grab 24 kilometres later at La Placette.
That will give Cavendish and his team 108.5 kilometres to get their papers to get ready for the sprint finish in Valence.
Cavendish has won 13 stages that covered distances of at least 191 kilometres in the Tour.
Another opportunity arises two stages later on stage 12, from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Nimes (159.4 kilometres). However, he and Quick-Step will have to make sure that he makes it over the line (and in time) on stage 11, a mountain stage.
The city of Nimes has only been a final stage destination on two occasions – in 2008 and in 2019. In 2008, that stage of 182 kilometres was won by no one other than Cavendish, and two years ago, it was a stage 16 sprint won by the Australian pocket rocket Caleb Ewan.
At just under 160 kilometres long, this stage will suit Cavendish and will be the second shortest flat stage after the last stage into Paris (108.4 kilometres) left for him to have a go at beating the record.
Given the two previous stages he won at this year’s Tour already, it also fits the profile of the length of the stage that he has enjoyed already this year, for example at the Tour of Turkey.
However, this stage does come the day after the 199-kilometre mountain stage in Malaucene which includes 51.4 kilometres of climbing, with five climbs, two of them being the first category and one being an Hors Categorie climb.
There is a short climb (4.4 kilometres at 4.6%) about 80 kilometres into the stage that the riders have to get past, before a chance to pick up more green jersey points just under 50 kilometres later at Uzes.
Sprinters’ teams then have 26.5 kilometres left to get in line to fight it out for the win in Nimes.
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This could be the stage where Cavendish beats Merckx’s record – starting in Nimes and finishing in Carcassonne.
However, it is also a very bumpy Parcours, with a 5.5-kilometre climb at 3.6% just 45 kilometres into the stage, and those ‘bumps’ continue for 115 kilometres after the intermediate sprint at Fontes 104 kilometres into the stage.
At 220 kilometres long, one would have to go back five years to find the last Tour de France stage that Cavendish won at that distance (stage 3 – 2016) and has previously won five stages at the Tour where stages have been longer than that distance.
He did also cross the finish line in first in this year’s Tour of Turkey on stage three which was 212.6 kilometres long, so this distance is not out of reach for him.
Carcassonne will host a stage finish for the seventh time, where the last time it was categorised as a flat stage, or one for sprinters, was in 1947.
Since then, there have been two hilly stages and two mountain stages finishing in the city – there was also a team trial that ended here in 1981.
Since Cavendish’s Tour debut in 2007, the Tour has only come to Carcassonne once, in 2018. However, by stage 15 that year, he was already out of the Tour.
This stage is the second-longest flat stage, and the third-longest stage totalling 207 kilometres.
Finishing in Libourne for just the third time in Tour de France history, the two previous finishes here were in 1957 and in 1992, both of which were time trials, individual and team, respectively.
Cavendish will have had six days of not competing to cross the finish line first.
After stage 13’s finish in Carcassonne, he will have to endure two hilly stages (stage 14 and 16), three mountain stages (stage 15, 17 and 18), and one rest day after stage 15.
There will be question marks about Cavendish being able to make it this far – with two hilly stages and three mountain stages, his team will have to help him make the time cuts on those mountain passes before he can think about this stage.
He will have to spend a lot of energy on those five days ensuring that he has enough left in the legs to compete for the line in Libourne.
With the likes of Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli breathing down his neck for the green jersey, Cavendish and Quick-Step may have to concede the chase for those points and instead focus on stage wins.
Starting in Mourenx, riders will face a short 1.9-kilometre climb at 5.3% after just 7 kilometres – 40 kilometres later, there is an intermediate sprint to battle out at Saint-Sever.
Given the start of this stage, sprinters’ teams will not only be chasing a breakaway, looking to catch them but also getting their sprinter in the right position.
Teams will have just over 150 kilometres to do this between Saint-Sever and the finish in Libourne.
If Cavendish makes it this far, he will be renewed with Paris and the Champs-Elysees.
As it was noted before, he has won four times in the French capital – no one, not even the man’s record who he is chasing, Eddy Merckx, has won more often in Paris (also four).
The yellow jersey, white jersey and polka dot jersey have already been decided by this stage.
This will be a routine 108-kilometre ride for most riders and teams – apart from those who are still battling for the green jersey if it has not yet been settled.
The peloton will enter Paris after 42.3 kilometres, and there is an intermediate sprint after 68.3 kilometres.
40 kilometres later, we will know the name of the last stage winner and if Cavendish has beaten Merckx’s record.
How apt it would be for Cavendish to equal or better Merckx’s record here on the last stage –getting the stage win to become the record holder not only in terms of a number of wins in the Tour de France but also to take Merckx’s number of wins in Paris.