Cavendish breaks Merckx’s record for most career Tour de France stage wins with his 35th victory

SAINT-VULBAS, France (AP) — Mark Cavendish wrote a new chapter of Tour de France history in what is expected to be his last appearance at cycling’s biggest race.

The veteran Isle of Man sprinter broke Eddy Merckx’s long-standing record for most career Tour de France stage wins with his 35th victory on Wednesday.

The 39-year-old Cavendish sprinted for the win in the fifth stage of the Tour, pulling away some 100 meters from the line despite being bunched in. He crossed the line ahead of Jasper Philipsen and then celebrated with teammates.

Norwegian rider Alexander Kristoff, who had crashed earlier, finished third. They were given the same time of 4 hours, 8 minutes, 46 seconds.

Sixteen years after his first Tour stage win, Cavendish spoke of his constant hunger for victory.

“I always needed to win one more, more more,” said Cavendish, who was joined by his children on the podium. “It takes a lot to get there every year. I’ve got incredible people around me.”

Two-time champion Tadej Pogacar narrowly avoided a crash and finished nestled in the main pack in 35th place. While Pogacar retained the race leader’s yellow jersey, the day belonged to Cavendish.

He equaled Merckx’s mark of 34 wins during the 2021 Tour and went close to No. 35 in the seventh stage last year when he was narrowly beaten by Philipsen. He crashed a day later and broke his right collarbone.

Merckx, the Belgian considered the most dominant rider in cycling history, won his 34 individual stages at the Tour from 1969-75.

Cavendish’s decision to give it one more shot paid off.

“I just wanted to get the run-in to do it. I’m a little bit in disbelief. Astana put a big gamble on this year to make sure we’re good at the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “We’ve done it.”

With his 2023 race ending early, Cavendish decided to put off retirement by a year and came back to try again.

Finally, Cavendish made cycling history, after winning his first Tour stage back in 2008.

Other riders were happy for Cavendish, with several stopping to speak with or hug him after the 177.4-kilometer (110-mile) leg from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Saint-Vulbas

Merckx amassed his wins in an era during which his domination was such that he earned the nickname “The Cannibal.” Unlike Merckx, one of four riders to win the Tour five times, Cavendish has never won the overall title, or come close.

But Cavendish’s longevity among his fellow Tour sprinters has no equal.

He won the Tour de France best sprinter’s green jersey twice. He also won stages at all three Grand Tours — the others are the Giro d’Italia and Spanish Vuelta — and became a world champion in 2011.

Cavendish joined Astana after his contract with Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl expired and he was overlooked for the 2022 Tour.

Cavendish had faced a difficult start to this Tour. During the first stage, he appeared to struggle with stomach and heat issues.

“I know how it works, my trainer and everyone around me knows how it is,” Cavendish said. “I’ve done 15 Tours de France. I don’t like to have bad days, I don’t like to suffer but I know it’s just in the head and to push through it.”

Meanwhile, Pogacar has another flat stage to get through safely Thursday, having reclaimed the leader’s jersey Tuesday with a brilliant attack near the top of the race’s first big mountain pass.

On Wednesday, he was simply relieved to avoid crashing.

“We were in the bunch and then suddenly something came up in the middle from nowhere. The guys in front of me braked and we touched wheels a little bit, but luckily I escaped,” he said. “I reacted on instinct and was very lucky.”

The 25-year-old Slovenian leads overall by 45 seconds from Tour debutant Remco Evenepoel, the Vuelta and world champion in 2022. Pogacar is 50 seconds ahead of two-time defending champion Jonas Vingegaard — the Danish rider who was badly injured in a high-speed crash at the Tour of Basque Country in early April.

Pogacar is aiming for the rare Giro-Tour double, and for his third Tour title after wins in 2020 and 2021. The last rider to win the Giro and the Tour the same year was the late Marco Pantani in 1998.

Wednesday’s stage saw Clement Russo and Matteo Vercher forming a breakaway after 35 kilometers (22 miles).

Given that French riders won the first two stages through Romain Bardet and Kevin Vauquelin, this may have motivated them. With rain falling, Russo and Vercher were caught with 36 kilometers (22 miles) left.

Stage 6 on Thursday is again suited for sprinters, going through vineyards to Dijon on a mainly flat trek of around 100 miles. The first individual time trial is on Friday.


AP cycling:

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