Another sprint stage, another win for the Manx Missile. Having notched up number 33 this afternoon Mark Cavendish is now just one win away from matching Eddy Merckx's famous Tour de France record.
It’s a topic the 36-year-old himself avoids, attributing it to press talk – but his wins in Fougères and Chateauroux last week, his first at the Tour de France in five years, followed by another dominant victory today have made the question of whether he will pass the Belgian’s total one of the big sub-plots of this year’s race.
It is already a compelling sporting comeback story, not least because of Cavendish’s struggles with injury and illness in recent seasons, but the fact that he missed the past two editions through non-selection and only secured a contract for this season in December, only being called up to participate in the race days before it began.
There are four more stages that should, on paper, finish in bunch sprints – including in Nîmes on Thursday, where he has won before, and in Paris on the final day, where he triumphed on the Champs-Elysées four times in a row from 2009-12.
Stage 12: Thursday 8th July
Stage 13: Friday 9th July
If Stage 12 to Nîmes does not work out then Quick-Step should get another chance on Friday in Carcassonne. If the wind blows, as it often does in this part of France, then you can almost guarantee Cavendish's Belgian team will be at the front, animating the race.
Stage 19: Friday 16th July
Stage 19 offers the final sprint opportunity before Paris, but with tired legs and minds it would not be out of the question for a determined breakaway to outfox the sprinters' teams.
Stage 21: Sunday 18th July
What odds Cavendish has his hands in the air for number 35 in The City of Light a week on Sunday? Now that would be some story.
With Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan crashing out on Stage 3, and Alpecin-Fenix’s Tim Merlier (winner of the sprint that day) and Arnaud Démare of Groupama-FDJ both outside the time limit at Tignes on Sunday, a number of his chief sprint rivals are out of the race.
Cavendish himself made it home just inside the time limit for the second successive day, helped by some of his Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mates, whom he has consistently praised throughout the race.
Speaking on yesterday’s rest day, he said: “These moments ... it's not just what you win, it's how you win it. Even if we stop now, this has been one of the nicest Tours.
"[Michael] Morkov is the best lead-out in the world,” Cavendish continued. “He's calm, like the anti-me.
“They are more than a lead-out, they are a team – I'm lucky to have these guys.”
Michael Matthews of Team BikeExchange and Italian champion Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain Victorious have emerged as the strongest challengers to Cavendish in the points classification, a contest he won in 2011.
Relive the final KM in Valence
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 6, 2021
So far, he has proved faster than either of them in sprint finishes contested head-to-head – he did not contest Stage 3 in Pontivy after his front wheel was damaged in a late crash – but they have picked up points at intermediate sprints where early climbs have enabled them to distance the Manxman.
This was the case with today's intermediate sprint which came at the top of a 3km, 5 per cent climb, and saw Colbrelli and Matthews take 15 and 13 points respectively to Cavendish's blank.
However, any gains were lost at the finish with the green jersey claiming another 50 points on the line to bump up his tally to 218 and extend his advantage on his Australian rival to 59 points.
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) July 6, 2021
Another tactic they may employ to remove Cavendish as a rival for the green jersey is to have their teams force the pace on mountain stages to try and make it impossible for him to make it across the line within the time limit.
While the race jury has the discretion to allow riders to continue, even if they miss the time cut – as happens when a large group is outside the time limit – any points accumulated in the race to date are taken away, a scenario that would effectively remove Cavendish from the equation.
Getting through tomorrow's monster double-ascent of Mont Ventoux will do his confidence no harm.
Yesterday he explained why sprinters seem to struggle on mountain stages, saying: “There's a common misconception we can't climb and it's through lack of training or laziness or a lack of ability to suffer.”
He said that the opposite was the case – “Those who are slowest are suffering the most. Our bodies aren't designed to do that.
“When you've got fast-twitch muscles you're not designed to go uphill at a steady pace for a long amount of time.
“It takes a different toll on the body and sometimes your muscles just stop working and that’s the hardest thing, to push through that.”
Acknowledging that "There's a lot less sprinters” left in the race now, he said: “We've got a strong group with experience who know how to control a race so we just have to hope for the best."
Cavendish is already the most successful sprinter in the history of the race, in 2012 passing André Darrigard’s total of 22 stages, accumulated between 1953 and 1964.
By the end of the 2016 race, his total stood at 30, and it seemed just a matter of time that he would pass five-time yellow jersey winner Eddy Merckx’s total of 34, which includes 20 individual time trials.
Last week’s brace of victories are Cavendish's first at the Tour de France in five years, however, as he crashed out in 2017 and struggled with illness the following year, and missed selection for the race in both 2019 and 2020.
Following last year’s short, coronavirus-affected season with WorldTour action packed into a short window from August to November, it seemed that his top-level career might be flight – until Patrick Lefevere brought him back to Deceuninck-Quick Step on a one year contract.
Even then, he had been set to miss this year’s race, too, until being called up to replace the injured Sam Bennett just a week before the Grand Depart in Brittany.
He also drew parallels on the rest day with his battle back from injury and illness, and that of Chris Froome, the four-time champion taking part in the race for the first time since his horrendous crash a month before the 2018 edition.
“I can talk from personal experience – you don't write somebody off," he insisted. "It's down to the individual, how long they want to do something and what they feel they can come back to.
“Unless you are that person you can never understand. Chris Froome has been a champion for many years. Very, very few people in the world can get to that level so people will not understand the mindset, and understand the fight to get back...
“Froomey is a friend of mine but even if it was somebody I didn't like, if I saw somebody being able to suffer physically and mentally to try to come back to somewhere they were and they know where they can get to, I applaud it, it's the strongest thing you can do,” Cavendish added.
With Tadej Pogacar looking like he's going to cruise to a second yellow jersey, is the Tour de France all about Cav now? Let us know your thoughts in the comments as always.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.