Number 32 'less of a shock' for Mark Cavendish, who marvels at Tour de France sprint speed...and he's still the fastest

A second win followed by a captivating breakdown of how he did it. Cavendish wows once more

Mark Cavendish
(Image credit: Getty)

"Please...don't ask me that question."

"Please. Don't ask me that question."

Mark Cavendish is smiling his way through being asked by French television about the Eddy Merckx record after drawing to within two of the all-time Tour de France stage win tally.

A shot across the bows ahead of the press conference proper, and you know what, fair enough. Better to stick with the facts of the matter rather than poking the proverbial Manx bear (he will bite your hand off).

Of the two clean bunch sprints of this year's Tour he has won both of them. Should he get over the upcoming mountains then there are five more potential opportunities, and the way he and Deceuninck - Quick-Step are going, they'll take some beating.

It looked like the Belgian team had it under control heading into the final, Cavendish says his team assumed the same but that in actual fact they didn't, only Deceuninck - Quick-Step and Alpecin-Fenix chipping in to make sure stage six was resolved in a bunch sprint.

"We just had to commit, it's as simple as that," Cavendish said of finally catching the breakaway duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Roger Kluge. "If we don't commit it's not a sprint anyway and we see it like that in the team, it's better to make sure it's a sprint and lose than gamble, gamble, gamble and it not be a sprint."

Give him the chance, and Cavendish will explain the surge of a Tour de France sprint finish and the decision-making that goes on better than most. Of course, that comes with the caveat that he's had the most practice.

"You saw at the end, Julian Alaphilippe, in the world champs jersey, again just controlling the last kilometre for us, keeping it lined out but not at such a high pace that they killed us. Then Ballerini again, then Mørkøv again, who was as cool as a cucumber. Waiting and waiting and waiting. He left the space open on the left for me but I just needed a second longer in the wheel, so I chose to jump onto Alpecin and come around there."

His top speed, 70.2km/h, may have only been the fourth-fastest of the top quartet on the stage, but the combination of Mørkøv's lead-out and Cavendish's sprinting know-how was more than enough to outclass his rivals once again. Another little nugget: look closely at the photos as he crossed the line and his chain had come off.

Pan up on those pictures and you'll see the hands-on-head celebration was a perfect reincarnation of the photo across the line when he won his first Tour stage in Chateauroux 13 years ago.

Mark Cavendish

(Image credit: Getty)

Asked whether this was planned, he gives a mischievous wink and a grin, leaving you unsure as to whether he's seen an opportunity to toy with those who've not written a good article since his last appearance at the Tour in 2016, or if quietly informing us he's the Isle of Man's greatest showman.

"Yeah it’s a dream to be here, in Chateauroux," he says, having already said he was living the dream after the first win this race, but that he tries to not let the romanticism of his "resurrection", as the French are describing it, get in the way of victory. "You can’t look at it like that, there’s no two without three or anything like that. It's just another sprint and use it as an advantage that I knew the finish rather than looking at it romantically."

Drilling down further into the technicals:

"There’s an incredible group of sprinters here, really the speed the sprints are going is ridiculous. When I first came here in 2008, 52/11 chainring was standard. You’d go bigger on a downhill sprint. Now, 54 is standard, some people go 55. The speed is ridiculously high. The lead-out trains are a lot more efficient, the power the guys have. Yeah, I’m 36 but I’m a massive fan of these young guys."

Then, time for the human side of the race. The fastest man on the original start sheet, Caleb Ewan, is now sitting at home, and he and Cavendish get on well. The Brit has already offered words of support, the Brit has of course been sat at home in his position before, watching the race on television like everyone else.

"Honestly, I’m so sad for my friend Caleb. He’s the one that can really see and play out a sprint. He’s small, he jumps from wheel to wheel. Since he was a kid I’ve been a fan of his. I really wanted to sprint [against him], just for the honour of it, to sprint head-to-head with him, and I think that would have been beautiful for the Tour too. 

"I'm sad that he’s out and I’m sadder that he’s hurt. I spoke to him the other day saying it will be hard for him sitting at home watching the race, it always is, but it’ll make it even sweeter when he comes back."

Soon, the uphill kilometres arrive, which Cavendish has always struggled with but most of the time has ended up conquering. His coach recently told Cycling Weekly that in the build-up to the Tour they only focused on sprint training rather than adding climbing into the mix. Time was of the essence and they were trying to get him to win a stage, not make it to Paris. On the other side of the Alps lies more opportunities for sprint wins, but the 36-year-old shuts down this line of questioning and won't get carried away with looking ahead.

"I look at each day as it comes and that's not just this year, that's every year," he says. "You don't really look further than the next day in front. And tomorrow, I think with the distance [249km], it's not going to be an easy day tomorrow. I think it's two days that breaks have nearly made it, tomorrow's 250 kilometres, punchy at the finish. I think that hard day is at hand before we even hit the mountains."

This second stage win didn't result in a sobbing Cavendish, overwhelmed with emotion and hugging any human being who happened to be in his general vicinity at the end of stage four. He says this time it was less of a shock, he'd had the confirmation two days before that he could do it, and for all the talk of records and everything else that follows the Tour's best-ever sprinter, his respect and love for the race as well as how he cherishes each victory cannot be doubted.

"You can say I'm more confident [today], but it’s not like I'm more confident...just you know…I guess the real thing is it was less of a shock, if that makes sense.

"We knew we could do it, not that we would. It’s just about putting it into place, not relying on luck so’s an absolute honour to be here. This means just as much as Tuesday's [stage four], and it means as much as that win 13 years ago."

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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.

Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).

I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.