You can chart the rise, fall and rise again of Mark Cavendish’s career through 14 years of Julys. Over that span, the Manx sprinter has won 34 stages of the Tour de France, equalling a record set by Eddy Merckx in 1975. That record looked like it would be, forever, untouchable – like Merckx’s position as the greatest rider of all time.
Times change. Marianne Vos staked her claim on the GOAT title; a plucky little nugget of muscle from the Isle of Man made a fairytale comeback in the twilight of his career to settle the Tour stage-win score.
Back in 2008, Cavendish was riding in his second Tour de France after a torrid first outing the year before that had seen him depart empty handed, crashing out of the race by stage 8.
By the end of the 2008 Tour, though, the brash young Cavendish had become a household name. He snared four stages that year, six in 2009, five in 2010, five in 2011, three in 2012, two in 2013, one in 2015, four in 2016. And then came the drought.
Cavendish’s long gap between wins at the Tour saw his star fade as he weathered illness and contract uncertainty. In 2019 and 2020, he went winless – not just at the Tour; anywhere at all. At the close of last season, at Gent-Wevelgem, a teary Cavendish wondered aloud whether he’d just ridden his last race.
Thrown a lowly-paid lifeline by Deceuninck-QuickStep, the 2021 Tour de France wasn’t on his agenda. But when Cavendish was called up late to replace last year’s green jersey winner, Sam Bennett, the questions started early, and with them, a growing weight of expectation.
Can you win a stage? Are you going for the record?
As we now know, Cav won a stage, and another, and another, and another. You wouldn’t bet against more.
The veteran sprinter has remembered some old lessons, and learnt some new ones. “I’m a grown-up now. I’m 36 years old, I’m not a 20-year-old boy wanting to fight the world,” he said today.
The 36-year-old Cavendish has broken a 46-year-old record, and there’s a satisfying arc to how he got there – although his strengths and Merckx’s are vastly different, making an even comparison pointless.
But the number’s a big thing. However, though Cavendish seems to recognise the enormity of the moment, there’s still work to be done. “We don’t have time to reflect on it,” he mused, thinking of the Pyrenees that lie between his next two chances for a stage win. “There’s plenty of life left after this to reflect on what we’ve done and on the history we’ve made.”
The book isn’t finished, but that chapter – the Merckx chapter – has, so it seems fitting to take a look back at those 34 wins. A visual record of when an abrasive kid in his twenties sped into the spotlight, and under the gaze of the world grew into a 36-year-old man.