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Mark Cavendish: cycling’s greatest sprinter of all time

Crashes, illness and injury couldn’t stop the ‘Manx Missile’ as he equalled Eddy Merckx’s all-time record at the Tour de France

A mass crash, a late bike change, sweltering heat and an injury to a teammate combined to make Mark Cavendish’s fourth-stage win at this year’s Tour de France one of his toughest. That’s what Jeremy Whittle said in The Guardian last week – but it was also the one that made history. 

Cavendish equalled Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins, confounding those who had written off his career after years of illness and poor form. “What he is doing now is really crazy,” said the defending Tour champion and wearer of the yellow jersey, Tadej Pogacar, as he considered the 36-year-old’s achievements. “All respect to him.”

A year ago Cavendish was close to retiring, said David Walsh in The Times, worn down by depression and the Epstein-Barr virus that causes glandular fever. He hadn’t won a stage of the Tour since 2016, and he wasn’t even supposed to be competing this year. Cavendish was only selected when the Deceuninck-QuickStep team’s original sprinter, Sam Bennett, was injured. 

But an extraordinary comeback reached its zenith on Friday in Carcassonne, said Daniel Matthews in the Daily Mail. After 220 “gruelling” kilometres, and a messy climax in which his teammate Michael Mørkøv nearly finished ahead of him, Cavendish crossed the line. As he “hobbled” to the waiting cameras, Cavendish was too spent to walk or talk. That determination to dig deep has made him the greatest sprinter of all time.

As Cavendish himself admitted in a “note-perfect” press conference, he doesn’t really bear comparison with Belgian legend Merckx, the greatest all-round cyclist the sport has ever known and one who has “become like Lord Voldemort at this race: He Who Shall Not Be Named”, said Tom Cary in The Daily Telegraph

But we can now say, without hesitation, that 36-year-old Cavendish is “the greatest sprinter the sport has ever known”. And you wouldn’t bet against him breaking the stage record before this Tour is over.

Can he break the record?

After “the best part of a week of brutal stages in the Pyrenees”, Cavendish has two more opportunities during the Tour to take his portfolio of stage victories to 35, Walsh notes in The Times. The first will be during Stage 19 on Friday, a flat route of 207km from Mourenx to Libourne, which “should suit the sprinters unless a breakaway can cling on”.

The second will be at Stage 21, “unofficially known as the sprinters’ world championship”. After racing 108.4km from Chatou to Paris, the race concludes with the final sprint down the Champs Élyéeses. It’s a route that’s served Cavendish well in the past, with four consecutive stage wins in 2009 to 2012 “when the ‘Manx Missile’ was at his near-unbeatable peak”, said David Hughes at iNews.

Cavendish’s career

From Commonwealth success to an unexpected break from the road, Cavendish’s career is marked by success against the unexpected.

As part of Team GB, he won the World Championships with Rob Hales in 2005, and with Bradley Wiggins in 2008. He stayed true to his roots in 2006, and took home a gold medal for the Isle of Man at the Commonwealth Games in the men’s scratch race. “It’s 20 years since we last won a gold,” he said at the time. “At the end of the day it’s bike racing and as long as I’m doing it I’m happy.”

After wins at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Berlin road races in 2005, Cavendish’s first attempt at the Tour de France came in 2007, and in 2008 he won four of the 21 stages. 

The only team member not to go home with a medal from the 2008 Olympics, Cavendish told The Observer: “There’s nothing for me on the track now.” His biggest regret was quitting the Tour to compete with Team GB, he said, so much so that his primary focus from then on became road racing.

Cavendish crosses finish line at 2012 Tour de France

Cavendish crosses the finishing line at the 2012 Tour de France

Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

In the following three years, Cavendish wracked up a total of 16 stage wins at the Tour de France, earning his first green points in 2011 - the same year he was awarded both an MBE and Sports Personality of the Year. Continued success across global races cemented his position as one of the world’s top sprinters, including a history-making performance in the 2012 Tour as he won the Champs Élyéeses stage in the rainbow jersey. “Every day when training or racing I look down at these rainbow bands once every few minutes and they give me a great sense of pride,” he said. “I just want to do the jersey justice.” In 2016, he experienced another first - wearing the yellow jersey. 

The sprinter rose from strength to greater strength, finally taking home his gold at the 2016 Olympics - until a diagnosis of Epstein-Barr virus in April 2017 began to slow his success. For the next two years he struggled with illness and fatigue, with injuries and crashes compounding the problem, says Sky Sports’s Peter Smith.

For two years in a row, Cavendish was not chosen to compete in the Tour de France, with speculation that he would “hang up his wheels” after the 2020 snub. “His revival has been one of the feel-good stories of the season,” Smith notes. Success at the Tour of Turkey and Tour of Belgium saw the Manxman slip back “into his old groove”. Now, spectators wait to see if he can find a new groove, by breaking Merckx’s record.

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