The greatest sprinter in the world

Inside the moment when history was made on stage five of the 2024 Tour de France as Mark Cavendish took his 35th stage win

Sixteen years ago, a small, stocky 23-year-old Manx sprinter turned up to the biggest bike race in the world and he won. It was on that rain soaked finish in stage eight of the 2008 Tour de France that everyone learnt the name Mark Cavendish. That very moment, when he crossed the line and put his hands to his head in disbelief, before flashing his characteristic cheeky grin to the camera, was the start of one of the greatest stories cycling has ever seen.

So much has been said and so much has been written since then. Cavendish has won so often in the Tour de France that, for a while, it became the norm. Through generations of sprinters, the Manx rider has remained on top: the fastest, the slickest, the best. Science says that with 35 stage victories and with approaching 40 years of age, he should no longer be winning. But, as Mark Cavendish has proven, he is the only person who decides when the victories stop.

There were so many reasons why the fairytale, record-breaking 35th stage win looked unlikely to happen in the Tour this year: Cavendish’s season so far had only seen him secure two victories in smaller races and when the Tour eventually rolled round, the 39-year-old had been close to missing the time cut on the opening three stages, struggling through the suffocating Italian heat. In the sprint finish on stage five, he’d lost his lead out train and was surfing the wheels alone. No one could be blamed if they had stopped believing. There were times that dream looked like it could die.

But in the end, nothing else mattered apart from Cavendish’s belief in himself. When he opened up his sprint and somehow, somewhere, found that gap in the bunch gallop to allow him a clear run at the line, it was just him and his bike, as it always has been. The way he moved from one side of the road to the other and won with such unchallenged dominance was vintage Mark Cavendish. Scrappy but stylish, smooth but powerful, his body small but his presence looming. And then the moment came. History was made. The 35th stage was won. And we were all left feeling like we never should have doubted him at all.

“Of course people didn't believe I could win another stage of the Tour and that's because they don't know what it takes to win a stage of the Tour,” Cavendish stated matter-of-factly after his victory. If everybody knew what you had to do in a sprint it would make my job harder. There will always be people who try to take it away, even if you win, that guy sitting just behind you to your left will try and take something away from the win today.”

His clipped, straight answers in the press conference were exactly how it should have been. This is Cav. The Manx Missile, the crowd favourite. A fast sprinter, an even faster talker – that hasn't changed since his first Tour stage win. The journey has had its ups and its downs and we’ve all been on it with him, which is what makes it all so good.

“This means the whole world because of the challenge, the pressure. A guy winning at 39 years old and everybody said first twitch muscle fibres don’t exist any more but if someone can do it, it’s Mark nobody else,” Cavendish’s coach and friend, Vasilis Anastopoulos, commented after the stage. “Everyone was talking about 35 since the start of the season when he announced he would continue. You cannot imagine the pressure. But he’s a great champion, only champions can handle this.”

Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s former teammate and now sports director at Astana-Qazaqstan, stood with glassy eyes by the team bus after the finish and echoed Anastopoulos’ sentiment.

“That was pure Cavendish. It took a lot to come back from this crash but he’s shocked me so many times before that I never doubted him. We spent hours working on training camps and the team didn’t have any doubt,” the 41-year-old gushed.

“It took a lot of preparation and the team invested a lot with the riders we signed and we changed a lot in the team as well, it’s amazing. That final 100 metres today was Cav from 2009, 10 and 11. The zip that he had attacking to the left, it was class. I’m proud of the guys. We’ve committed so much to this, it wasn’t just a side project. Vino [Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana-Qazaqstan, team manager] has said in interviews he wanted to create history.”

The gravity of what Cavendish did at the Tour de France today was felt all around the peloton. Former teammates spoke of his work ethic, perseverance and motivation – the Manx rider has influenced them all in some way.

“It was unbelievable to hear it on the radio, obviously I had no idea because we were well back out of trouble but I'm super chuffed for him. It's what he deserves, he’s the greatest sprinter ever. To not share the record anymore and have it for himself, good on him, I’m so happy for him,” Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers said after the stage.

Even Cavendish’s own rivals who he had just out sprinted on the run into Saint Vulbas felt the magnitude of the occasion. 

“I was a teammate with him before, he’s a role model for me and for many. He’s the best sprinter of all time, he showed today the reason why. At his age, he still has that perseverance and commitment and he went all in. He got what he deserved,” Fabio Jakobsen of Team dsm-firmenich-PostNL smiled.

Those who have had their ups and downs with the Manx sprinter were able to look past it all today too. Patrick Lefevere, Soudal-Quick-Step team boss, stood beaming by his own team’s bus after seeing Cavendish sprint to victory. The Astana rider may not wear the jersey of the Belgian team anymore, but it still seemed like everyone was cheering for him today.

“We were in the bus and everyone was yelling like it was one of our riders. When we saw Mark winning, the bus went crazy. I'm proud, I’m happy for him. I think we all made a part of his history,” Lefevere said. “In my eyes, when he won four stages in 2021, I thought he should have said goodbye but he didn’t. I was wrong.”

The phrase that kept being repeated around the finish of today’s stage was that Mark Cavendish is now, officially, the greatest sprinter of all time. Everyone who was there today had the privilege of experiencing a moment in time. There will never be another one like him. The record will stand for years to come. At the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish feels like a giant amongst men, but at the same time, he’s still just Cav. The rider who can’t stop messing around with his bike set-up, who isn’t afraid to throw a few swear words at journalists, who wears his heart on his sleeve, whether you like it or not. Cycling’s lovable, raw hero. And the best there’s ever been.

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