‘Comeback kid’ Mark Cavendish poised to join Tour de France immortals

If Mark Cavendish sprints to his 35th Tour de France stage win in Paris on Sunday, he will have completed one of the most remarkable of sporting comebacks, in a race renowned for its gladiatorial brutality and suffering.

Cavendish understands only too well how ruthless cycling can be. Written off by many and considered yesterday’s man before this year’s Tour began, he has now won 34 Tour stages and will surpass the great Eddy Merckx’s record of victories if he wins Sunday’s stage.

It is a triumph over adversity – a return from exile that compares with Tiger Woods and his victory in the 2019 Augusta Masters.

“Mark Cavendish is the greatest sprinter in the history of the Tour and of cycling,” the Tour de France director, Christian Prudhomme, said as this year’s race reached its final phase. “His comeback is just amazing.”

The 36-year-old’s successes have spanned 13 years but, before his explosive return to the French race this July, he had not won a stage in one of Europe’s three Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain since 2016.

“Seeing a guy win stages 13 years apart is almost unheard of,” Prudhomme said. “Cavendish’s career is phenomenal with great highs and great lows, but he found his way again and I just want to say to him: ‘Hats off’.”

Cavendish was called into his Belgian team less than a week before the 2021 Tour began. After star sprinter Sam Bennett was left out by the Deceuninck-Quick-Step team, Cavendish was unexpectedly drafted in. It proved a rude awakening.

“In all honesty, after the first 20 kilometres on the first day, I thought to myself, ‘what the fuck have you done?’” he admitted. “The speed they were going – I was like, ‘what I have wished for here?’”

But then, less than a year ago, Cavendish couldn’t get close to competing for victory. Riding at the back of the professional peloton in lost races, he was reduced and diminished by years of illness and clinical depression.

Most experienced cycling pundits, watching his decline, shook their heads and quietly wished he’d call it a day.

Adesso, assuming he can be the first man out of the final bend of this year’s Tour, exiting the Place de la Concorde before turning on to the Champs Élysées, he is on the brink of making history. Even more remarkably, his success will come at the expense of Merckx, five-time Tour winner, former world champion and winner of numerous other races.

Cavendish’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step manager, Patrick Lefevere, the very definition of an ashen-faced, grizzled team boss, was one of many of his backroom staff reduced to tears by the British rider’s comeback.

“We have more than 100 wins in Grand Tours, but I never saw the whole staff crying,” Lefevere said. “Everybody went on his emotions.”

“Cavendish is the champion of emotion,” Prudhomme said. “He has also had to fight hard. More than once he was on the canvas. I remember the finish at La Rosière [ski resort] nel 2018, when he was outside the time limit. He didn’t want to quit because he loves the Tour.

“We were worried because he was a long, long way behind and the police were ready to close the road to him. We had to argue with them not to do that. I thought we were seeing him at the Tour for the last time. I said to myself: ‘He deserves better.’”

For better and sometimes for worse, the fiercely competitive Cavendish has always worn his heart on his sleeve. In October last year, struggling for results, he was caught in tears after one race by a Belgian camera crew.

“That’s perhaps the last race of my career," Egli ha detto, red-eyed, before quickly leaving the scene.

Adesso, tuttavia, buoyed by renewed success, his fire is definitely back. He can often be prickly. Last Friday, he was filmed berating a mechanic over a problem with his bike set-up. “Sort it out!” he yelled angrily, as shocked fans looked on, before storming back onto his team bus.

A few hours later, he apologised on social media. “My bike had some problems when I got on it this morning," Egli ha detto. “Despite this, I should not have reacted in the way that I did and not so publicly.

“Although they know how short I can be when I’m stressed, no one, especially those you care about, deserves to have a voice raised to them.”

But he is also renowned as having a forensic eye for detail, obsessive over order and neatness. Merckx himself remembered when Cavendish once stayed overnight at his house with some team mates. “Mark was the only one who cleaned his room, and left it neat and tidy,” Merckx said approvingly. “A gentleman of exemplary politeness. We don’t really know the character of the man behind the image he presents, but what I get from him in the first place is simply his kindness. He is charming even.

“When you see where he was in recent years, he didn’t win any prizes,” Merckx said. “His return to Quick Step has put him back on his feet in every respect and all elements have contributed to his success.”

Now all Cavendish needs is one more lead-out through that final bend, ready to unleash the speed that has taken him to 34 Tour wins and a stunning 52 wins in all of Europe’s Grand Tours.

After winning four times already on the Elysian fields, few would bet against him doing it again.

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