With 10km to go of stage four, Mark Cavendish thought his chance had gone, that Brent Van Moer's one-minute advantage was too great to close, especially with all the general classification teams getting in the way, positioning themselves on the front out of harm's way as the peloton rushed down narrow roads but not contributing to the chase.
The plan they had that morning for the second sprint stage of the Tour de France had gone out the window, stress mounting. Davide Ballerini broke a spoke in the closing kilometres, the world champion and green jersey Julian Alaphilippe chipping in to help position Cavendish, before Michael Mørkøv threaded the final needle to deliver his sprinter to the front of proceedings.
"We used the other teams, we needed a bit of luck, I took the long way around," Cavendish explained in the press conference after taking his 31st Tour de France stage win, squeezing through gaps and unleashing his sprint to pass Jasper Philipsen, overwhelmed after climbing up from the gutter of pro cycling a mere eight months ago to sitting once again atop the sport.
"It’s almost been forgotten how difficult it is to win a Tour de France stage but it’s not easy at all. That’s why…that’s been the hardest thing, people not understanding how hard it is," Cavendish trying to compose himself, resplendent in the green jersey, a bonus prize to the stage win he sorely wanted.
"I had fire in my eyes," he said. "I had fire in my eyes too the last time I did this finish, it hadn’t been a successful Tour for me. I had fire in my eyes last time, I had fire in my eyes this time."
This time, not in 2015 when he won in Fougères, had the fire built up over years of people saying he was past it? Cavendish says no, but really, maybe, he means yes.
"It’s not about proving anyone wrong, it’s nice to prove someone wrong, but...anyway half that press room hasn’t written a good story [about me] for longer than since I last won a stage of the Tour de France," even if you didn't see him cross the line first, this sentence is all you need to hear to know that Cav. Is. Back. It's not about proving anyone wrong, but also here are two fingers to you, and to everyone else who doubted I could do this.
"It’s not about proving anybody wrong, you just want to be here. I wanted to do it for myself. If I didn’t know I could still do it, I wouldn’t be riding my bike. I just needed someone who understands racing, and that was Patrick Lefevere, the team, my wife, people at home close to me."
Since what looked like his emotional swan song at Gent-Wevelgem, when Cavendish passed through the mixed zone, explaining we could have just witnessed his last race as he didn't have a team for next season, a move to Deceuninck - Quick-Step was not only a dream, but a transfer fitting for a rider of his stature, his final years playing out in the dignity he deserves. He arrived with no expectation, but has worked hard and grasped something he didn't think possible.
"I had the belief I could, but I didn’t have the belief I would be, if that makes sense," he continues. "You don’t sign for Deceuninck - Quick-Step with Sam Bennett in the team with two Tour stages and the green jersey [last year] thinking you’re getting to the Tour de France. I literally signed with this team because I knew these were the happiest days of my career and I just wanted to be in a happy environment."
Speaking on the problems of his previous teams: "I needed a team that functioned as a team and I needed a bike that fitted me. I had neither of those things." Cavendish explains he knew he just needed the right ingredients to win again, let alone claim another stage, and at Deceuninck - Quick-Step, winning is what they do.
Now, the Merckx question. He's within three of equalling the record stage win total. And at this Tour de France, where he clearly has the legs, Caleb Ewan has gone home, and there are three weeks still to come with plenty more sprint stages, it's much more likely than it has looked in years. For all the talk of people not believing in him, the fact is the Merckx record is still discussed, in the coming days more than ever, you'd imagine.
Rather than placate the question, say how it would be an incredible achievement that would elevate his already glittering career to a new, stratospheric level, but given how hard (as he's already said) it is to win just one Tour de France stage, that three more would be really hard yet also amazing.
But that's not the Cavendish way, and nor should it be. The biggest crime sporting greats can commit is to be boring. Imagine if we had a rider who'd won 31 stages of the Tour de France without ever saying a peep!?
"I spoke to Tim Merlier yesterday and said 'you think your career changed by winning a stage of the Giro, win a stage of the Tour you'll see your life change'. And that's with one Tour de France stage win. I think it's only been half an hour since I've won and you've already forgotten how big it is to win one Tour stage if you're asking questions like that."
Cav is back. Happy, fast, emotional, combative, and crossing the finish line first once more.
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