How Mark Cavendish secured his historic 35th stage win

A closer look at how the Manx missile outsprinted his rivals at the 2024 Tour de France

One of the most satisfying aspects of Mark Cavendish’s stunning, history-making victory today was just how vintage a Cavendish sprint it was. Given the strength of the competition, spearheaded by the seemingly unbeatable Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), how much he has suffered in the opening days, and the fact that, at the age of 39, he surely cannot pack the same speed he did back in his heyday, you sensed certain circumstances would have to come about for the Manxman to have an opportunity. A peloton shed of some sprinters by crosswinds or a crash, perhaps, or a mechanical for Philipsen. 

But no: this was as smooth a run to the finish as could be hoped for against virtually all the best sprinters. There were no mitigating circumstances, Cavendish was simply the best. And it wasn’t even close — Cavendish had time to celebrate as he crossed the line a bike-length ahead of Jasper Philipsen, wearing an expression on his face as if the victory was never in doubt.

It was clear from very early on in the day that Cavendish fancied his chances. He looked serene in a pre-race interview, talking about his happiness at the cooler conditions after suffering so badly in the heat over the weekend. Once the racing started, he was seen early on fiddling with his bike and fussing over his equipment — something we’ve learned from many years watching Cavendish means he’s in the zone and feeling good. 

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That he fancied his chances was made clear by the work done by his Astana team in the peloton during the way. Though Philipsen's Alpecin-Deceuninck and Mads Pedersen’s Lidl-Trek had most riders in the line leading the peloton throughout the stage, a turquoise jersey of the Astana team was among them, functioning as much as a signal of intent as a help to bring back the day’s doomed breakaway. 

As the sprint approached, more and more of those turquoise jerseys flocked to the front of the peloton. When the peloton was strung out going round a roundabout 3km from the finish, they had four riders lined up behind Lotto Dstny, who was leading the group for their sprinter Arnaud De Lie. From there, they did a sterling job maintaining that position right towards the front, first around a tight right-hand corner 2.3km from the finish, then when Alpecin-Deceuninck made their charge to the front shortly after, until the race became more condensed as other teams swarmed to the front heading into the final kilometre.

As great a job as his teammates had done, it was up to Cavendish to surf wheels in the final lead-up to the sprint, and he used all his experience and nous to do so. It was not rocket science to know that the wheels of Mathieu van der Poel and Jasper Philipsen were the ones to seek, after what they did together in the sprints of last year’s Tour de France, but to manoeuvre a way through the packed bunch from one side of the road to where they were positioned on the right-hand side, easing Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious) of the wheel to replace him, took great skill. 

But the real masterful move that ultimately won Cavendish the stage came next. About 400m from the line, having followed the two Alpecin riders the previous 200 metres, fighting off challenges from Fernando Gaviria (Movistar) and Arnaud Démare (Arkéa-B&B Hotels) to keep that prime position, Cavendish suddenly jumped from Van der Poel’s wheel and onto the left-hand side of the road. He sensed in that instance that the right-hand side of the road was to be closed off and moved to the left where the space was opening up. 

Read more: A look back at Mark Cavendish's record-breaking career 

He latched onto Pascal Ackermann’s (Israel-Premier Tech) wheel instead and was in a row of four riders, among them Philipsen. The Alpecin rider was clearly anxious about Cavendish’s presence and aware that he would be boxed in if he went to the right. He tried to knock him off Ackermann’s wheel, but again, Cavendish held firm.

Indeed, it turned out Ackermann’s was the wheel to have as the big German strung the bunch out upon launching his sprint giving Cavendish the perfect lead-out onto the finishing straight. Sensing his moment, the Manx missile was fired, swerving off to the left-hand side of the road and starting his sprint. Philipsen was right on him, swerving to the left with him and sticking resolutely to his wheel. But it was too late: the Belgian ran out of road to come around him, and Cavendish took the victory.

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