In Stage 4 of the 2021 Tour de France, 23-year-old Belgian Brent Van Moer was within a football field of a career-making victory. He’d spent 87 miles (140 kilometers) out ahead of the peloton, and for the last 9 miles (15 kilometers), he’d forged on alone, head down, trying to hold off the much faster flock of cyclists in pursuit. It was the kind of gambit cycling fans love: dramatic, high risk, and almost poetically doomed from the inception.
But in the stage’s final straightaway, less than 656 feet (200 meters) from the finish, the peloton finally swallowed up Van Moer. Alpecin-Fenix rider Jasper Philipsen, another 23-year-old Belgian, emerged from the pack and looked for a moment like he’d get his first ever Tour stage win. But Philipsen couldn’t maintain his acceleration, and British veteran Mark Cavendish burst out, squeezed through a gap, and won by half a bike length.
As Cavendish coasted to a stop, a few of his rivals—including race leader Mathieu van der Poel and former world champions Peter Sagan and Mads Pedersen—offered their congratulations. And once Cavendish alighted from his bicycle, he hugged his teammates, and burst into tears.
A Tour de France stage win can make a cyclist’s career, so it’s not unusual to see riders get emotional after hitting pay dirt at La Grande Boucle. But the 36-year-old Cavendish wasn’t crying because he’d never won at the Tour de France before: When Cavendish left the Tour in 2016, he’d won 30 stages in his career, putting him within striking distance of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34. No, Cavendish was crying because by chasing down Van Moer and Philipsen in Fougères, he’d finally finished an almost impossible five-year journey to stage-win no. 31.
Professional cyclists travel unthinkably quickly; the fastest mass start stage in the Tour’s history clocked in at an average of more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) per hour over almost four hours. At that speed, wind resistance becomes a huge factor, meaning that cyclists travel the quickest in large flocks—the peloton—with riders taking turns breaking through the wind while the rest conserve energy.
Race organizers like to reduce the impact of drafting and break up the pack by introducing obstacles: long mountain climbs, steep hills, and treacherous cobblestone roads. But flat stages are still incredibly common. Those tend to be decided in the final kilometer, and they tend to be won by riders capable of the highest top speeds and the fastest accelerations.
These riders—sprinters, as they’re called—sit in the middle of the bunch for most of the race and work their way to the front only at the last moment. With as little as 492 feet (150 meters) left, they’ll surge out of a teammate’s slipstream like a NASCAR driver and put down a peak power of 1,500 watts or more. (Ask your spin instructor if that’s a lot.) Sprinters usually struggle over varied terrain and rough roads; you won’t see them winning the general classification at the Tour. But in the last 15 seconds of a flat race, a great sprinter can spin the world backward like Superman and rack up race victories in bunches. And Cavendish, at his peak, was the best sprinter who ever lived.
Cavendish came to road racing in his early 20s having already won a world championship in track cycling. He won 11 races as a 22-year-old rookie in 2007, then in 2008 earned his first stage victories in Grand Tours: two at the Giro d’Italia and four more at the Tour, despite skipping the last week to concentrate on track events at the Beijing Olympics.
Between 2008 and 2012 or so, Cavendish was the fastest man on two wheels. He won Milan-San Remo—the only Monument pure sprinters are capable of contesting—in 2009, plus three stages at the Giro and six at the Tour. In 2010 he won five more Tour stages, then made his debut at the Vuelta a España, winning three stages and the points classification—a secondary leader’s jersey awarded based on the order of finish (50 points for first place, 30 for second, and so on) in stages and intermediate sprint markers. In 2011 he won five stages and the points classification at the Tour, along with its prestigious green jersey, plus the road race world championship in Copenhagen.
One of the most prestigious races of the year for sprinters is the final stage of the Tour de France. This stage, a largely ceremonial ride that finishes on the Champs-Élysées, is ideal sprinter territory, and from 2009 to 2012, Cavendish was unbeatable. He won by 98 feet (30 meters) in 2009, an almost inconceivable margin for this stage. And in 2012, Cavendish won in the world champion’s rainbow jersey after being led out by his teammate and former track cycling partner, Bradley Wiggins, who was wearing the race leader’s maillot jaune. It became one of the most famous Tour de France images of the 2010s.
All this success started at a time when the Tour was looking for a new hero following Lance Armstrong’s first retirement and the humiliating doping scandals of the mid-2000s. (Armstrong’s successor, Alberto Contador, was likewise stripped of multiple grand tour titles after a PED scandal.) With no clear sentimental favorite to root for among the GC contenders, Cavendish filled the vacuum. He was telegenic, aggressive, and narrowly on the right side of the line between cocky and arrogant. His exploits earned him one of the coolest nicknames in sports—the Manx Missile—as well as the title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2011. Cavendish became a massive celebrity, particularly in the U.K., right as the U.K. was about to emerge as a road-cycling superpower for the first time.
But sprinters tend to have fairly short careers. Theirs is a dangerous business—crashes can occur at speeds of 43 miles (70 kilometers) per hour—and it’s one that requires fast-twitch muscles, which can fade on short notice after age 30. So it wasn’t a big surprise when, in 2016, Cavendish’s career began sloping downward.
The 31-year-old still won an Olympic silver medal in Rio that year, and came within a couple of meters of a second world title that fall. But by this point, Cavendish had moved on from the dominant Belgian Etixx-Quick-Step team to a smaller South African outfit, Team Dimension Data, and looked content with the heights he’d already reached: He was one of only five men to win the points classification at all three grand tours; won four world championships—three on the track, one on the road; and earned an Olympic silver medal and 48 Grand Tour stage wins, tied for third all time.
Cavendish crashed out of the 2017 Tour on Stage 4 after a controversial collision with Sagan. And then suddenly, what looked like a moderate setback turned into a watershed moment in Cavendish’s career.
In the spring of 2017, Cavendish was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which in severe cases can cause chronic fatigue symptoms—a dire emergency for someone who does cardio for a living. Cavendish says it took him two years to recover fully from his illness. He was out of action for two months after the Tour, and he didn’t even finish in the top five in a race until the following February. In 2018, Cavendish crashed out of Stage 1 of the Abu Dhabi Tour, missed two weeks, then crashed out of Stage 1 of Tirreno Adriatico. Ten days after that, he crashed out of Milan-San Remo, and in his next race, the Tour de Yorkshire, he DNF’d on the final stage. At that year’s Tour de France, Cavendish missed the time cut on Stage 11 and went home without coming particularly close to winning a stage.
Things only got worse from there, as Cavendish struggled to stay right-side up for an entire race and looked like a shadow of himself when he did. By the end of 2020, he was two and a half years removed from his last race win and a bit player on a middling Bahrain-McLaren squad for which he failed to register a single top 10. A decade earlier, Cavendish was so dominant he made the sport upsettingly boring. Now he looked … well, whatever comes after being cooked.
Last winter, Cavendish’s old team (now racing under the name Deceuninck-Quick Step) threw him a lifeline. Deceunicnk had a loaded roster, including world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Belgian starlet Remco Evenepoel, defending Tour de France green jersey winner Sam Bennett, and half a dozen other notable sprinters and classics specialists. Cavendish wouldn’t be the focus of the team, but he had a roster spot, and—when he was selected as the team’s lead sprinter—access to a top-level lead-out train. Maybe it would be enough to give him one last win before he retired.
It wasn’t an easy start for the 35-year-old. In April, tactical confusion at the Scheldeprijs took what should’ve been an easy win for either Cavendish or Bennett and handed it to Philipsen. But at the second stage of the Tour of Turkey a week later, Cavendish surged past Philipsen and took his first professional win in 38 months.
“It’s really nice to be a winner again,” Cavendish said after the race. “I’ll never get tired of that feeling.”
The next day, Cavendish won again. Then again on Stage 4, and again on Stage 8. He won at the Tour of Belgium in June, and, after a shocking benching of Bennett by Deceuninck’s directeur sportif, Patrick Lefevere, Cavendish was once again the lead sprinter on a top team heading into the biggest race on the planet. Closing the four-win gap to Merckx was a lot to ask, but Cavendish was in a better position to succeed than he had been since the mid-2010s.
When Cavendish hauled down Van Moer and Philipsen in Stage 4 of the Tour, it was a heartwarming story, but not a threat to the competitive order. Even after his minor renaissance earlier in the spring, a legitimate challenge to Merckx seemed far-fetched. Soon, though, the whole race opened up for Cavendish.
Not only did Deceuninck leave Bennett home, but rival team Bora-Hansgrohe did the same with its star sprinter, Pascal Ackermann. Plus, the first week of this year’s Tour de France was unusually chaotic and crash-heavy. The “Hi, Grandma and Grandpa!” crash on Stage 1 was massive. And in the finale of Stage 3, Sagan got tangled up with Caleb Ewan, the fastest sprinter in the world. An injured Ewan dropped out the same day; Sagan abandoned a week later, still suffering from the aftereffects of the crash.
With Ewan out, the two fastest sprinters left in the race were Stage 3 winner Tim Merlier and Frenchman Arnaud Démare, winner of the 2016 Milan-San Remo and seven Grand Tour stages. On Stage 9, a grueling mountain race, Cavendish made the time cut with 92 seconds to spare. Merlier, who said the stage left him “mentally broken,” did not. Nor did Démare, and both were disqualified from the race.
All of a sudden Cavendish was the one making it over the mountains and avoiding crashes while his rivals did themselves in. Wout van Aert, a forceful bunch sprinter in his own right, has chosen to chase victories from the breakaway, as has Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli, further thinning Cavendish’s competition. The Stage 4 win put the Brit back in the green jersey and he’s held it ever since, racking up points on flat stages while Australian Michael Matthews, a more capable climber, has tried to reel him back in through the mountains.
On Stage 6, Cavendish slingshotted past Philipsen again to take career stage victory no. 32. He won again on Stage 10, prompting Matthews to lament the fact that “Cavendish is just too fast these days.” On July 9, he pinballed through an unusually technical final sector, dodging traffic and once again leaving a disappointed Philipsen in his wake. This was his 34th Tour de France stage victory, putting him level with Merckx.
Cavendish now has two more chances to beat Merckx’s record. The first comes on Friday, on Stage 19 into Libourne. Stage 20 is a time trial, and with Tadej Pogacar having locked the GC title up weeks ago, it’s likely to be an anticlimactic one. But if Cavendish doesn’t win Stage 19, he’ll have one last shot at Merckx: on the Champs-Élysées. To break the biggest record, held by the biggest legend, on the biggest stage a sprinter can perform on.
Five months ago it looked like Cavendish would never win another race. Now it seems like he can’t lose.