Mark Cavendish knighted after postponing retirement to beat Tour de France record

Team Astana Kazakhstan rider Mark Cavendish/Mark Cavendish knighted after cancelling retirement to beat Tour de France record
Mark Cavendish, now riding for Team Astana Kazakhstan, said he was 'humbled' by the news of his knighthood - AFP/Luca Bettini

Mark Cavendish will head to the Tour de France later this month seeking to become not only the first rider to win 35 stages of cycling’s most famous race, but the first to win one as a Knight Bachelor. The Manxman said he was “truly humbled and thankful” after being knighted in the King’s Birthday Honours on Friday night.

Cavendish, 39, is widely regarded as the greatest sprinter in the history of cycling, having won 164 races and counting during an extraordinary career on track and road in what has been a golden era for the sport in Britain. Cavendish joins fellow cyclists Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Jason and Laura Kenny, and Sarah Storey in receiving the honour.

Of that group, only Cavendish and Storey are still active, with Cavendish eyeing up what would be a record-breaking 35th stage win at this summer’s Tour, which begins in Florence in a couple of weeks. Cavendish is tied with Belgian great Eddy Merckx on 34 Tour stage wins, having taken his first as a 23-year-old in 2008.

Cavendish wants to add another entry to the record books by moving clear of Merckx's Tour de France mark
Cavendish wants to add another entry to the record books by moving clear of Merckx's Tour de France mark - AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat

The 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner, who now races for Team Astana Kazakhstan, announced his decision to retire in May last year, only to reverse it after he crashed out of last year’s Tour one day after his chain skipped when he looked as if he would win his record-breaking Tour stage into Bordeaux.

Cavendish is competing at the Tour de Suisse this week, from where he reacted to the news of his knighthood. “I can only say that I’m truly humbled to be honoured by His Majesty The King,” he said. “It’s always been the biggest privilege to represent my country, and seeing cycling as the sport, pastime and mode of transport I’ve given my life to grow in Great Britain during the span of my career, has given me joy and pride beyond words. I’m truly thankful to everybody that has lived this journey with me.”

Cavendish’s knighthood will be seen as deserved recognition by the vast majority of those who have competed with or against him. Cavendish is a notoriously spiky character who wears his heart on his sleeve. But he is also well-loved for his passion, his generosity to team-mates, his loyalty and his fighting spirit, in particular the way he came back from years of debilitating injury and illness to win four stages of the Tour in 2021.

Cavendish made a remarkable comeback to the Tour de France in 2021, winning the points classification for the second time in his career
Cavendish made a remarkable comeback to the Tour de France in 2021, winning the points classification for the second time in his career - Getty Images/Tim de Waele

That extraordinary comeback was the subject of a Netflix documentary, released last summer, which chronicled Cavendish’s life growing up on the Isle of Man, his parents’ divorce, his move to Manchester as a young rider to join the fledgling British Cycling academy, his golden period between 2007 and 2015 when he racked up 133 victories, including the 2011 world title in Copenhagen, stages of all three grand tours, and victory at Milan-San Remo in 2009, before his descent into clinical depression after crashes and illness derailed his career.

The one notable absence from Cavendish’s glittering CV is an Olympic gold medal. He missed out on the track in 2008, when he and Wiggins were reigning world champions in the Madison, and on the road in 2012 when his team-mates failed to deliver him to the Mall for a sprint he was widely expected to win. In 2016, Cavendish won silver in the omnium.

But the Tour remains the pinnacle of cycling, and Cavendish - who is married with four children - has already sealed his legend there, regardless of what happens this summer. Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s race director, described the Manxman as “the greatest sprinter in the history of the Tour and of cycling” in 2021.

This year’s race, which begins in Florence on June 29, features eight flat stages, the first of which comes on July 1 with a sprint into Turin.

Dot Tilbury, 74, Cavendish’s first coach while leading cycling races for children at the Isle of Man National Sports Centre, said everyone on the island would be rooting for him.

“When I was coaching Mark as a boy, I had no doubt that he would go on to achieve amazing things,” she said. “He was very passionate and driven – he would study courses to work out the best way around and research the latest gadgets to help him succeed.”

She added: “Everyone in the Isle of Man, from young children to grannies, is so very proud of what he’s achieved. He has inspired many children to think that you don’t have to come from a big city to go after what you want in life.”