Mark Cavendish capped a dramatic and emotional return to the Tour de France winning stage four from Redon to Fougères, ahead of a clutch of the Tour’s finest young sprinters, to take his 31st career stage win in the race.
A last-minute stand-in for his Deceuninck-QuickStep team’s Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, the 36-year-old Cavendish was back to his very best and justified the faith show in him by team manager Patrick Lefevere. After jubilantly crossing the line, a sobbing Cavendish hugged his teammates and many of his peers.
“I don’t know what to say,” said a tearful Cavendish. “Just being here is special enough. I didn’t know I would get to come back to this race. I thought I was never coming back [here], honestly but the stars have aligned somehow. After last year it’s just nice to have some good luck.
“We didn’t know we were going to get there but we just see what a team this is. So many people didn’t believe in me but these guys do.”
Racing in the slipstream of lead-out man Michael Morkov, Cavendish burst out of the peloton in the slightly uphill sprint to the Boulevard des Deportes in Fougères to complete his astonishing Tour comeback.
On the eve of the pivotal first individual time-trial, from Change to Laval, the stage was largely calm with the main highlight being the two-man breakaway of Brent Van Moer, racing for the Lotto Soudal team, and Pierre-Luc Périchon, of Cofidis. With Lotto-Soudal’s sprinter Caleb Ewan having abandoned the race with a collarbone fracture, after his heavy crash at the finish of stage three, the Belgian team are increasingly likely to feature in long-distance breakaways.
As the peloton closed, a fatigued Van Moer left Périchon behind and made a last, lone bid for glory, but was reeled in with less than 300 metres left to race, as Cavendish turned back the years and claimed the stage victory.
The stage start had been marked by a brief rider protest, led by German sprinter André Greipel, illustrating the peloton’s unhappiness over the conditions that had led to so many crashes in the opening three days of racing.
“The riders paused in solidarity as part of their calls for UCI to set up discussions to adapt the three km [time neutralisation] rule during stage races,” tweeted riders’ union, the CPA.
“At the end of the day, that’s going to be pointless,” Matt White Team Bike Exchange sports director, and former professional, told the Guardian. “The CPA is a toothless tiger. I think there’s a combination of things – the courses can be modified and I think they can start to look at the rules. Just because the rules are there it doesn’t mean they can’t be modified.”
The peloton also issued a statement saying that “the riders have been discussing how they wish to proceed to show their dissatisfaction with safety measures in place and demand their concerns are taken seriously. Their frustration about foreseeable and preventable action is enormous”. The protest move, however was not believed to be unanimous.
“The riders wish to stress their respect for their sponsors, their sports groups, the organiser, their international institution. Supporters are very important to them – and this is why they will be riding today. In return, the riders of the Tour de France ask for the same respect – respect for their safety.”