Mark Cavendish is on the verge of making yet more Tour de France history after winning his 33rd career stage in Valence.
The Manxman has long brushed off questions about Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 wins, but will not be able to avoid them much longer after another dominant display both from him and his Deceuninck-QuickStep squad at the end of the 191-kilometre stage 10 from Albertville.
After his team-mates took control in a finale blown apart by crosswinds, Cavendish held off the charge of Wout Van Aert and Jasper Philipsen to take a third win of a race he had not expected to start – extending his lead in the points classification in the process.
History is now his to make. Last Tuesday’s win on stage four had been Cavendish’s first in the Tour in five years, but after three in a week the record is in touching distance.
After several seasons blighted by illness and injury, for Cavendish to have even made it back to the Tour and taken one stage win at the age of 36 ranked as a remarkable comeback.
But his performance so far already looks on a par with the Manx Missile at his most dominant – back when a much fresher-faced Cavendish would turn up and win five or six stages each year.
“The love and support that I have felt from all over the world has been incredible,” said Cavendish. “That really makes it worthwhile that people can be inspired by some sort of comeback, can get hope that when you think things are over you can continue to fight and work to make it back.
“If anybody can relate to that and be inspired by that for sure it’s the greatest joy I can get out of this Tour de France.”
As crosswinds blew, it was another masterclass in such conditions from Deceuninck-QuickStep, with world champion Julian Alaphilippe at the front of the charge as the peloton split inside the final 30km.
Sonny Colbrelli, Cees Bol and Andre Greipel were among those who had to fight to get back on – with the energy spent meaning they were unable to impose themselves at the end.
Not that Deceuninck-QuickStep looked in any mood to let them or anybody else have a chance – bossing the road to ensure it was they who had position in the final bend to put Cavendish where he needed to be.
“It was an old-school, run-of-the-mill, like you read in the cycling magazines, textbook lead-out,” Cavendish said. “Just getting the lads on the front, pull as fast as they can so no one can come past you…I’m just humbled.
“I’ve got the winner of the Tour of Flanders (Kasper Asgreen), the world champion who’s been in the yellow jersey here (Alaphilippe), Michael Morkov who’s going to the Olympics to try to win the Madison, and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner (Davide Ballerini) leaving everything on the road for me.
“I just had to finish it off. I’m grateful to all of them. I didn’t have to do anything – just the last 150 metres. I’m thankful to everyone.”
The numbers backed up Cavendish’s version of events – Morkov put out a higher top speed than the stage winner in the last 500 metres of the stage, with the win down to race smarts and positioning as much as raw pace.
The sprint finish – and the regrouping of the peloton – meant there was no change at the top of the general classification, with defending champion Tadej Pogacar still two minutes and one second clear of Ben O’Connor, with Rigoberto Uran the next closest challenger five minutes and 18 seconds down.
That could change on Wednesday when the peloton will tackle two ascents of the revered Mont Ventoux – another day when Cavendish and his fellow sprinters may face a fight to stay within the time cut.
But survive that and Thursday’s stage to Nimes is tailor made for another bunch sprint, which may just mean the Tour’s record books begin to be rewritten.