While his tally of Tour de France stages might have stalled, Cavendish's stint in yellow will only strengthen his place as the Tour's greatest ever sprinter
“I’m kind of laughed at if I only win two or three stages nowadays, whereas one stage win can make a riders’ career,” he said in his trademark, blunt way.
He had a point: yes, his win tally had stalled, but stopped? Not just yet.
Nonetheless, it seems strange that for somebody who had won 26 Tour stages prior to Saturday, including one on arguably Great Britain’s greatest day in the sport four years ago (in which he won wearing the rainbow jersey on the Champs-Elysées following a lead-out from the first ever British winner), that Cavendish’s victory at Utah Beach on day one of the 2016 race seems the most special.
Why? It’s Mark Cavendish. On Sunday he’ll wear the famed maillot jaune for the first time in his career.
He’s finally achieved that long-held objective, one that passed him by in the chaos of Corsica and the Harrogate heartbreak in the 2013 and 2014 editions respectively.
The Manxman will also become only the eighth Brit to wear yellow in race history and the third (following his close friends Sir Bradley Wiggins and David Millar) to have led all the Grand Tours.
If ever you can ever forgive Cavendish for declaring himself “super happy”, this is probably that time.
However, step away from the fact that he’s achieved the first of his big three targets for 2016, because closer evaluation of his performance outlines why his win on Saturday will be one of, if not the most memorable of his victories in the race.
Seventh wheel going under the flamme rouge, he was brilliantly moved up towards the front of the peloton by Mark Renshaw. Yet, when Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel started their sprints, at first Cavendish didn’t seem to have an answer for them. The latter’s presence on Sagan’s left also blocked what would have been the Manxman’s preferred line.
Yet the way Cavendish kept his nerve (he said he waited to fully launch his sprint because of a headwind into the finish), went the longer way round them, and put a notable gap between him and everybody else within 100 metres was spectacular.
Behind him over the line were the very riders many were predicting would comfortably put him away in such a finish. Kittel, remember, was somebody whom Cavendish had never previously beaten to take a race win.
Watch: Tour de France 2016 stage one highlights
Historically, Cavendish’s record in the opening sprint finish of Grand Tours isn’t good (although, despite his much-publicised failure to wear yellow until now, he won such stages in the 2009 and 2012 Tour).
Last year’s fourth place along the Neeltje Jans dam in the Netherlands stands out; despite having to go long following a mistimed lead-out from Renshaw, the way André Greipel, Sagan and Fabian Cancellara came round him in sight of the line suggested a rider on the decline.
Greipel’s eventual quartet of wins, compared with Cavendish’s one, in the ensuing three weeks did not exactly help those who disagreed with such an assessment.
“The thing is, it’s easy to forget that this is my 10th Tour de France,” said Cavendish in the stage winner’s press conference on Saturday. “You know from the beginning, I had the pressure to win; ever since 2008 it’s been the end of me [if I lost a sprint].”
One of the Dimension Data rider’s closest friends told me at the start of 2016 that Cavendish’s track work – largely at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester – would help him greatly come July.
Admittedly their “he may not win a thing before then” prediction didn’t exactly come true (Cavendish has won sprints at the Tours of Qatar, Croatia and California this year), but those hours of spinning a fixed gear on the velodrome definitely appeared to give Cavendish that turn of pace that he could have done with at Neeltje Jans last July.
Interestingly, Lotto DS Marc Sergeant felt that result on day two of the 2015 Tour effectively decided the sprinting hierarchy in the race.
“You could see winning the first sprint of the Tour gave him [Greipel] confidence,” he told me last December. “If you win the first sprint [in a race], you win a second, a third, maybe a fourth.”
This is the exciting prospect as far as Mark Cavendish is concerned. Even if he only spends one day in the yellow jersey, his reputation as the best sprinter to ever grace the Tour has only been strengthened as a result.
In addition, the Manxman passing Bernard Hinault’s 28 stage wins (second only to Eddy Merckx) in the race now looks extremely likely to happen this month.
Always one for a good line, he said on Saturday that “there’s a lot of guys in the peloton who f****** hate me to be fair.”
But many of those have never won a single Tour de France stage. Let alone 27.