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Powerful Cavendish Sprints to New Tour Stage Win Record

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Mark Cavendish unleased a powerful sprint with 150m to go in stage 5 of the Tour de France and easily won his 35th Tour stage, breaking the record he had shared with the great Eddy Merckx. Brought into perfect position by his Astana Qazaqstan team, the 39-year-old Briton burst into a space that had opened in front of him and quickly had a lead of more than a bike length, which he maintained all the way to the finish line.

“I’m a little bit in disbelief,” Cavendish told Eurosport after the stage. “Astana put a big gamble on this year to make sure we’re good at the Tour de France. It’s a big gamble for my boss Alex Vinoukourov and the team. It shows [that it takes] an ex-bike rider that knows what the Tour de France is to know you have to go all in. We’ve done it. We worked exactly how we wanted – how we built the team, what we’ve done with the equipment, every detail has been put specifically toward today.”

Vinoukourov and Astana remained committed to Cavendish and his quest after he failed to break the record last year and had to abandon the Tour after fracturing his collarbone in a crash on stage 8. As a result, encouraged by Vinoukourov, he reversed his decision to retire from the sport to take one more crack at the record. His and Astana’s gamble has now paid off handsomely.

But this year’s Tour began inauspiciously for Cavendish when he cracked on the first climb of the mountainous stage 1, which was run in temperatures of up to 38°C (100.4°F). Surrounded and tended to by teammates, who kept him in water and ice, he managed to make it to the finish line 39:12 behind the winner, Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich PostNL), well within the time limit.

“It normally takes me days to get into it,” he explained. “I know how it works, my trainer and everyone around me knows how it is… I’ve done 15 Tours de France. I don’t like to have bad days, I don’t like to suffer but I know it’s just in the head and to push through it. We didn’t nail it as a team like we wanted to do, but the boys improvised and got me there in the best position. I got on whatever train was going.”

In cementing his place in sports history, he beat no lesser a rider than Alpecin Deceuninck’s Jasper Philipsen, the reigning Tour de France Škoda Green Jersey holder. Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X Mobility) was a distant third.

The Manx Missile’s victory was a very popular one, as fellow riders – first his teammates and then his many friends in the peloton – lined up to congratulate him. His wife and son were also on hand to celebrate the victory that had been three years in coming. But the road to the record 35 Tour stage victories and his total of 165 wins in all road races has been long and included many setbacks and disappointments.

His achievement is all the more remarkable in that in the four years from 2017 to 2021 he did not win a single Tour de France stage. One reason was that in 2017 he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr disease, which is caused by a virus. Its symptoms include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and weak and sore muscles. Cavendish said later that he had been told by doctors that he could train again when the illness was still in his system. This led him to reduce his food intake to make racing weight and eventually to clinical depression.

A series of crashes and poor performances followed, until he returned to the Tour in 2021 and won four stages, putting him level with Merckx at 34 Tour stage victories. He came within a whisker of breaking the record on the final stage on the Champs-Élysées, beaten at the line by Wout van Aert and Jasper Philipsen. Philipsen again narrowly beat him on stage 7 of the 2023 Tour, and Cavendish crashed the next day, breaking his collarbone. So it is fitting that Philipsen was the rider Cavendish outsprinted for the record.

Cavendish’ career is remarkable not only because of this record. He is also the only rider to win the final Tour stage on the Champs-Élysées four years in a row (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). He became world road race champion in 2011 and so wore the rainbow jersey when he won on the Champs-Élysées sprint in 2012. In addition, he has now won 55 Grand Tour stages, third-most behind Merckx (63) and Mario Cippolini (57).

After the hugs and the handshakes, the new recordholder was surprisingly calm. Asked how he felt about breaking the record at last, Cavendish said, “I’m not bouncing off the walls. It’s a relief, like a weight has been lifted.”

It took his coach and friend Vasilis Anastopoulos to put the achievement in proper perspective. “This means the whole world because of the challenge, the pressure,” he said. “A guy winning at 39 years old and everybody said first twitch muscle fibers don’t exist anymore. But if someone can do it, it’s Mark, nobody else. Everyone was talking about 35 since the start of the season, when he announced he would continue. You cannot imagine the pressure. But he’s a great champion, only champions can handle this.”