CHATEAUROUX, France — Mark Cavendish is rolling back the years at the Tour de France.
Back in the race for the first time since 2018, the British sprinter has regained some of the luster of his youth to dominate the field again.
Cavendish claimed the short and flat sixth stage on Thursday in a mass sprint — in the very same city where he posted the first of his impressive 32 stage wins 13 years ago.
“It seems like every time we came here it was different,” said Cavendish, who had already won twice in the town of Chateauroux. “Ten years since I last won here. Pretty special. And in pretty similar fashion.”
After winning Stage 4 on Tuesday to start his unexpected comeback to the top, the best sprinter in the history of the race took a step closer to Belgian great Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins.
Cavendish, after a bout of depression and several seasons of struggles on and off the bike, secured a new contract with his former Deceuninck-Quick Step team for the 2021 season. The 36-year-old veteran convinced manager Patrick Lefevere he could perform at the top level again, but he was not expected to ride at the Tour and did not train specifically for the three-week race.
“I knew he could come back, but I did not know what level he could reach,” Lefevere said.
Cavendish received a late call-up last month as a replacement for Sam Bennett, the best sprinter of last year’s Tour.
In addition to Merckx’s record, Cavendish’s next goal will be to win the best sprinter’s green jersey in Paris. Lefevere said he does not want to set targets for Cavendish’s aging legs since reaching the French capital after crossing the Alps and the Pyrenees is already a big challenge for his protégé.
In Chateauroux, Cavendish was led out in the final stretch by his teammates and edged Jasper Philipsen and Nacer Bouhanni.
Mathieu van der Poel kept the race leader’s yellow jersey at the end of the 160.6-kilometer (100-mile) transition stage in central France with an eight-second lead over defending champion Tadej Pogacar. The main contenders enjoyed a quiet day in the peloton, conserving energy for the Alpine stages this weekend. There were no significant changes in the overall standings.
The stage got off a frenetic start as eight riders immediately jumped out of the pack.
With several one-day classic specialists among them capable of riding at full-speed for hours — Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, Kasper Asgreen, Nils Politt, and Soren Kragh Andersen — the peloton could not give them too much leeway.
Groupama-FDJ and Arkea-Samsic, the teams of French sprinters Arnaud Demare and Bouhanni, respectively, organized the chase until the breakaway split and Van Avermaet tried a solo effort at the front.
The pack finally slowed down as the Belgian rider was joined by Roger Kluge but kept them on a leash of under two minutes. The pair went all out on the long stretches of flat roads leading to the finale but were caught in the closing stages.
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