VALENCE, France — Mark Cavendish’s fairy tale at the Tour de France is a never-ending story.
Only months after he contemplated retirement, the 36-year-old British veteran is now just one win away from tying Eddy Merckx’s record haul of 34 stage wins at cycling’s biggest race.
Cavendish won the 10th stage in a mass sprint Tuesday as Tadej Pogacar kept the race leader’s yellow jersey.
Back at the Tour for the first time since 2018, Cavendish has been dominating the sprints this summer, with three stage wins under his belt already.
In Valence, the sprinter from the Isle of Man once again enjoyed a perfect lead-out from his Deceuninck-Quick Step teammates and comfortably edged Belgians Wout van Aert and Jasper Philipsen.
“It was an old-school, run-of-the-mill, like you read in the cycling magazines, textbook lead-out,” Cavendish said. “Just getting the lads on the front, pull as fast as they can so no one can come past you… I just had to finish it off. I’m grateful to all of them. I didn’t have to do anything. Just the last 150 meters. I’m thankful to everyone.”
Cavendish has no rival to his measure, especially with the absence of teammate and sprinter Sam Bennett, whom he replaced at the last minute — and after Caleb Ewan crashed out early in the race. He also enjoys the collective experience and force of his team, the best outfit when it comes to one-day racing.
“It’s a bit like with a center-forward in soccer,” Thomas Voeckler, a former Tour rider turned commentator for public broadcaster France TV, said after the finish. “When they score, they keep on going. It’s the same with sprinters.”
Cavendish secured a new contract with his former team for the 2021 season after returning from a bout of depression and several seasons of struggles on and off the bike. But he was not expected to ride in the Tour and did not train specifically for the three-week race. He was a late call-up last month as a replacement for Bennett, the best sprinter of last year’s Tour.
Cavendish has returned with a vengeance, as if the long absence had whetted his appetite for victory. The way he fought during the daunting Stage 9 in the Alps to make sure he made the time cut to stay in the race spoke volumes about his determination to see the Champs-Elysees one more time.
Having survived the Alpine stages in terrible weather conditions, Cavendish will have more opportunities to equal or beat Merckx’s record. And if he manages to reach the finish line in two week’s time, the best sprinter’s green jersey he currently dons will be another target.
Following two hard stages in the Alps contested in terrible weather conditions, Pogacar finished safely in the main pack. The defending champion was on his guard in the last 20 kilometers on roads open to crosswinds and pushed hard to remain at the front as the peloton split in small groups.
Earlier, Tosh Van der Sande, from the Lotto-Soudal team attacked from the start and was joined at the front by Astana rider Hugo Houle.
With neither a threat in the general classification, the peloton was happy to let them go as the sun returned to the Tour de France route.
The pair quickly opened a gap of six minutes in less than 20 kilometers but could not keep on the same speed for long. Their lead shrank to four minutes as they approached the day’s lone climb — the Col de Couz — and the breakaway was put to an end about 36 kilometers from the finish.
Pogacar has already stamped his authority on the race. He avoided the crashes that pushed some pre-race favorites out of contention, asserted his authority during the first time trial and attacked relentlessly in the mountains to open a 2:01 gap over his closest rival, Ben O’Connor of Australia.
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