“The record is irrelevant… There’s no room for sentimentality at the Tour. It’s the same every year. I know it’s my last one, but it’s still the same, I have a job to do.”
Mark Cavendish may be playing down the hype surrounding his bid to break the Tour de France’s all-time stage win record – a record he currently shares with Eddy Merckx, of course – but that doesn’t mean we have to.
Cavendish celebrates after equalling Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage record in 2021 (A.S.O./Pauline Ballet)
The 2023 Tour, as I’m sure you’re well aware by now, is Cavendish’s last hurrah at a race with which he has become synonymous since taking four stage wins as a precocious 23-year-old back in 2008.
Since that breakthrough triumph on stage five in Châteauroux, when he clasped his hands to his head in disbelief as he crossed the line, Cavendish’s 34 wins at cycling’s biggest race have come amidst spells of unprecedented dominance, spells of doubt, spells in the wilderness, and spells of Lazarus-like resurgence.
They’ve spanned the eras of Armstrong, Froome, and Pogačar, as well as changes in his own approach to life and to his sport.
The former world champion has always said that one stage win at the Tour de France would be enough. 34 has proven that he’s the greatest sprinter cycling has ever seen.
To mark the Manx Missile’s final attempt to break THAT record, we decided to pick out our top ten favourite Tour stage wins from one of cycling’s most charismatic, iconic, and enduring characters. And, with so many to choose from, believe me it wasn’t easy…
2008, Stage 5: Cholet to Châteauroux
After a difficult introduction to the Tour in 2007, a baby-faced Cavendish catapulted himself into the top tier of sprinters with two wins at the Giro d’Italia in May 2008. But it was stage five of that summer’s Tour, when he held off veterans Óscar Freire and Erik Zabel for the win in Châteauroux, that firmly cemented his status as the fastest kid on the block.
That win would be the catalyst for three further stage wins later in the race (he would have certainly won more if not for a pre-planned Olympics-related abandon before stage 15) and would also start an enduring love affair with Châteauroux, where he would win two more stages in 2011 and 2021.
2009, Stage 3: Marseille to La Grande-Motte
Most fans remember this stage as the day when Lance Armstrong – aided by his old buddy, and Cavendish’s Columbia-HTC teammate Big George Hincapie – tried to stab his Astana ‘leader’ Alberto Contador in the back in the crosswinds blowing across France’s south coast. But at the end in La Grande-Motte, a rampant Cav also displayed his growing tactical nous, and the strength of his team, to bag the second of what would end up being a crushingly dominant six stage haul.
2009, Stage 19: Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas
At the 2009 Tour de France, Cavendish was simply unbeatable. He was the fastest man around by far, and the ruthless Columbia-HTC train was in full swing. But stage 19 to Aubenas was something else – the Manx sprinter somehow dragged himself over the 20km-long, second cat Col de l'Escrinet, which topped out with 17km to go, before beating Thor Hushovd to prove he was far from a flat track bully.
2009, Stage 21: Montereau-Fault-Yonne to Paris (Champs-Élysées)
First ever win on the Champs-Élysées, a sixth stage victory of the race, your lead-out supremo Mark Renshaw finishes second, and nobody else is even remotely in the picture. Absolute perfection.
2010, Stage 5: Épernay to Montargis
The beginning of the 2010 season was arguably the toughest of Cavendish’s five-year spell as the undisputed fastest sprinter on the planet. A much-publicised dental issue, personal troubles, and question marks over his form and sprinting style meant that the pressure was mounting on Cavendish come July, and only continued to rise when he fell short on the Tour’s opening two sprint stages. But when the win finally arrived, on stage five to Montargis, the tears flowed for the extremely relieved Manxman. And so too did the wins – by the end of the Tour he had five, and the critics were definitively silenced.
2011, Stage 21: Créteil to Paris (Champs-Élysées)
After a few years of near misses, ASO’s decision in 2011 to tweak the points competition – some would say to ensure that the sport’s dominant sprinter could finally nab a jersey seemingly designed to reward sprinting dominance – resulted in the image we’d all been waiting for since 2008: Cavendish in green winning on the Champs-Élysées. He’d follow up his first green jersey (and his only Tour points triumph until repeating the feat exactly a decade later) by adding a rainbow one to his collection later that year. Not bad.
2012, Stage 21: Stage 20: Rambouillet to Paris (Champs-Élysées)
The yellow jersey leading out the world champion to victory on the Champs-Élysées. Enough said. Well, actually, probably a whole doctoral thesis’ worth could be said about a Sky team that managed to win the Tour de France while managing – just about – the egos and expectations of two potential race winners, as well as the fastest sprinter in the world.
In fact, Cavendish’s win on stage 18 – by then, only his second of what had been a frustrating race – when he was forced to surf the wheels on his way to victory in Brive-la-Gaillarde, perhaps says more about his square peg in a round hole experience at Sky, along with his unflinching ability to win regardless of the circumstances. But for many, when they think about 2012, it all boils down to one iconic image in Paris, an image that encapsulated Britain’s position at the top of the cycling world.
2013, Stage 13: Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond
By 2013, after a frustrating but ultimately successful year at Sky, the sprinting winds were a-changing. Marcel Kittel had arrived, the first rider in five years to realistically challenge Cavendish’s position as the fastest man on two wheels. So, like he would continue to do over the next ten years, Cavendish adapted.
His second, and final, stage win of the 2013 Tour was an exercise in tactical ingenuity and one which proved that if you can’t beat the big powerful German sprinter, you make sure he doesn’t contest the finish. The British rider’s new Omega Pharma-Quick Step team blew the race apart in an exposed section with 30km to go and stormed to the finish. Chris Froome floundered in the wind, and Cavendish easily dispatched the small group sprint, including Peter Sagan, chalking up his quarter of a century at the Tour in the process.
2016, Stage 1: Mont Saint-Michel to Utah Beach
It’s hard to believe now, but in many respects, stage one of the 2016 Tour to Utah Beach marked the first edition of the Mark Cavendish Comeback story. Between that iconic win on the Champs in 2012 and the start of the 2016 race, he’d only won three stages at the Tour – by contrast, he’d taken 16 between 2009 and 2011 – and his days as the undisputed best sprinter in the world appeared to be numbered.
But in 2016, Cavendish came within a whisker of his greatest season ever: after the Tour he took silver in the omnium at the Olympic Games and was just pipped at the world road race championships by Peter Sagan. But it was at the Tour where he proved he was back to his brilliant best, winning the first stage in Normandy – beating pretenders Kittel, Sagan, and Greipel in the process – to take the first yellow jersey of his career. Three more wins would follow before dropping out, like in 2008, to prepare for the Olympics. He was back.
2021, Stage 4: Redon to Fougères
At the end of 2020, after years in the wilderness, a disconsolate, dejected, defeated Mark Cavendish appeared on the verge of retirement. But then an opportunity at Deceuninck-Quick Step popped up, giving him one more season at the top. Then Quick Step’s big-name sprinter, and the previous year’s green jersey, Sam Bennett pulled out of the Tour with a last-minute injury.
Those simple twists of fate opened the door for one of cycling’s great comeback stories. The 2021 Tour resembled a two-wheeled fairy tale for Cavendish. Wins at Fougères – an emotional first Tour stage for five years – and Châteauroux, scenes of his past glories, were followed by further victories at Valence and Carcassonne, where that record, the one that followed him around like a ghost for most of the past decade, was finally equalled. Redemption, at last.
With his last ever Tour underway, can Cavendish make history and finally grab Tour stage win no.35, eclipsing Eddy Merckx as the race’s most prolific rider of all time? If he does, we might need to update this article…
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.