Just a few days before the Tour kicked off, Cavendish – now a member of the Deceuninck–Quick-Step team – had expected to watch the race on television. But he kept himself fit, just in case. Then last year’s green jersey winner, Sam Bennett, suffered a knee injury in training and Cavendish stepped in to replace him. The rest is about to become history.
Dominating the sprints, Cavendish won stages 4, 6, 10 and 13 of the Tour, bringing his total of Tour de France stage victories to 34, the same as Merckx. So great has been Cavendish’s dominance in the sprints that the only thing that could have stopped him from wearing the green jersey on the final podium in Paris was if he had finished outside the time limit on one of the mountain stages. But his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates – including world road racing champion Julian Alaphilippe – have worked hard both on leading him out for the sprints and shepherding him up and over the big climbs. There are no more mountains left, and Cavendish leads his nearest rival, Michael Matthews of Team BikeExchange, 298 points to 260.
The Škoda Green Jersey winner of 2017, Matthews still has a chance to catch Cavendish and deprive him of the record on Friday and Sunday. But he has not shown at any point in the race that he could beat the Englishman in a fair sprint. Cavendish is simply faster.
However, Friday’s stage 19, 207 km from Mourenx to Libourne, is one of the last chances for teams who have not won anything on the Tour so far to grab a stage victory, so many will try to create something. If there is an early breakaway, Matthews will certainly be in it – and Cavendish will have to follow. It should be interesting.
We’ll never know how the green jersey competition would have gone if the Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan of Lotto-Soudal or seven-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan had remained in the race. Both of them were forced to drop out because they were caught up in the same crash on stage 3.
Ewan broke his collarbone and left the Tour immediately; Sagan dropped out after stage 11 when the wound became infected and caused inflammation of the joint. He has undergone an operation on the knee and will now not take part in the Tokyo Summer Olympics road race, as he had planned. If they had not crashed out, Cavendish would probably not be on the point of breaking Merckx’s record because Ewan was in excellent form and has proven in the past that he is one of the fastest riders in the world. The intermediate sprints where Sagan shines and Matthews has picked up most of his points this year would also have been more competitive, and the outcome of the green jersey race would perhaps still have been in doubt.
But that should not take away from Cavendish’s accomplishments. To come back at age 36 and accomplish what he has in this fast and brutal Tour de France is the stuff of legends.