Can Mark Cavendish Catch (And Pass) Eddy Merckx

He hates to talk about it, tells us 'the media' made it all up, but Mark Cavendish is not far from becoming the winningest TdF cyclist ever.

By Whit Yost |

Mark Cavendish wasn’t even supposed to be riding the 2021 Tour de France. Heck, he wasn’t even supposed to be racing at all.

At least, that’s what many of us thought after four lackluster seasons in which the Manx Missile won a measly two races. Without a contract heading into 2021, it looked as if the then-35-year-old had no other choice but to retire.

But then came a last-minute deal—a one-year contract—with Deceuninck – Quick-Step, the team with which Cavendish raced from 2013 to 2015. A homecoming of sorts, the signing injected new life into the ageing sprinter and gave him one more chance to show his doubters that there were still a few more wins left in his legs.

And he has, so far this year. Cav won four stages at April’s Tour of Turkey; he followed that by winning the final stage at the Tour of Belgium in June. That intensified the rumours that Cav might start the Tour de France instead of his Irish teammate Sam Bennett, who won two stages and the green jersey in last year’s Tour.

Well, the rumours turned out to be true. On the Monday before the start of the Tour in Brittany, Quick-Step officially announced Cav would have a place in the eight-rider Tour roster. Cav quickly rewarded the team for its faith, winning Stages 4 and 6 and taking the green jersey as the leader of the Tour’s Points Competition into the Tour’s first rest day.

The victories were the 31st and 32nd Tour de France stage wins of Cavendish’s career, leaving him only two stages behind the record of 34, set by cycling legend Eddy Merckx. Suddenly, a record that Cav never thought he would even get a chance to chase is in reach. And while the Manxman doesn’t like to talk about it himself, the question remains: Can he catch or pass Merckx?

Well, the short answer is yes, for several reasons:

Cavendish is in form.

Despite being old for a field sprinter, Cavendish has found a fountain of youth, thanks to his new coach, Vasilis Anastopoulos, who completely revamped Cav’s training program. Even though he’s missed time over the past few seasons, Anastopoulos saw that Cav’s training numbers were the same if not better than they were during his last tenure with the team. He asked Cav to trust him in making the changes necessary to get him back to his glory days, and the results—so far—speak for themselves.

Mark Cavendish celebrates his Stage 6 win.

He’s happy and confident.

A happy Cav is a successful Cav, and he couldn’t be more please to be part of the Wolfpack—as evidenced by his post-stage celebrations and interviews. And while modest about his expectations upon starting the Tour, Cavendish has once again found the swagger that any rider needs in order to win Tour de France field sprints. He’s gone from “I’m just happy to be here” to “I know I can win here,” a mental shift that could lead to more victories.

His team is built for this.

When it comes to winning Tour de France field sprints, Cavendish couldn’t be riding for a better team. From Tim “El Tractor” Declerq, who sits on the front of the peloton slowly reeling in breakaways, to Michael Mørkøv, the sport’s fastest and most experienced lead-out man, Cav has everything he needs in a team to support his bid to catch (and pass) Merckx.

Take Stage 9’s rain-soaked ride through the Alps, for example. Cav was dropped early, but Declerq, Mørkøv, and Dries Devenyns remained by his side, pacing him and keeping him company over the day’s big climbs. While other sprinters finished alone, outside the time limit, Cav finished the stage with his mates, 1:30 inside the cut-off.

The competition is dropping like flies.

In a Tour not expected to be filled with field sprinters, those that did start the race have been dropping like flies. Australia’s Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) crashed out at the end of Stage 3; Belgium’s Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), the winner of Stage 3, abandoned during Stage 9; and France’s Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) both finished outside Stage 9’s time-cut.

Of the sprinters still left in the race, only Belgium’s Jasper Philippsen (Alpecin-Fenix) has a sprint to match Cavendish’s. But he’s young (23) and only finished one of the two grand tours he’s started; and with the Merlier and Mathieu van der Poel out of the Tour, he’s lost two valuable teammates.

Cavendish will have plenty of chances.

A quick look through the Tour’s race bible shows five stages that have a chance to end in field sprints—with two finishing in towns in which Cavendish has won stages in the past. (In a nice twist of fate, Cav’s two stage wins so far have also come in towns in which he’s won in the past.) These are the stages that give Cav the best shot at another win:

→ Stage 10 – Albertville to Valence, 190km

The Tour begins its second week with a long stage from Albertville to Valence that should end in a field sprint. It’s a long stage with a few bumps that could just as easily go to a breakaway, but it’s also a good day for Cavendish and his team. Crosswinds could play a role, but Cav has won stages blown apart by crosswinds before, so this shouldn’t pose a problem for the Manxman and his team.

Stage 12 – Saint Paul Trois Châteaux to Nîmes, 159km

The day after a double-shot of Mont Ventoux, another field sprint beckons, this time in Nîmes. Cav has won here before, during the 2008 Tour de France.

Stage 13 – Nîmes to Carcassone, 220km

One of the longest stages in this year’s Tour, Stage 13 takes the riders from Nîmes to Carcassonne on a rolling but not too challenging course that shouldn’t pose too many challenges for Cavendish. A breakaway could go the distance, especially with the Pyrenees looming, but this is definitely another chance for him.

Stage 19 – Mourenx to Libourne, 207km

If he makes it through four hard days in the Pyrenees, Cavendish will have two more chances to catch or pass Merckx, the first of which comes at the end of Stage 19. A flat to rolling stage with only one categorised climb early in the day, this is another good chance for a breakaway—unless Quick-Step keeps the break on a short leash.

Stage 21 – Chatou to Paris, 108.4km

Cavendish won the Tour’s final stage four years in a row from 2009 through 2012, a Tour record. If Cav goes into the day one win away from either tying or passing Merckx’s record, this will become one of the most exciting final stages in Tour history, making the final few laps around the Champs-Élysées must-watch TV.

That’s five chances to win the two stages Cav needs to tie (or the three stages he needs to pass) Merckx. While challenging, it’s certainly not impossible. And for Cav, a rider who tends to win stages in bunches, it’s starting to sound downright plausible. In our dream scenario, Cav wins two stages during the Tour’s second and third weeks, then takes Stage 21 on the Champs-Élysées to break Merckx’s record, bringing the 2021 Tour de France to a legendary close.

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