How Mark Cavendish can equal and top the Eddy Merckx record

Mark Cavendish is closing in on the all-time stage-win record of 34 — let's take a dive into his improving chance of equalling Merckx.

Photo: James Startt

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The feel-good narrative of the 2021 Tour de France? Mark Cavendish and his Cinderella story.

The Manxster’s improbable comeback is one of the most unexpected of this year’s Tour. Barely six months ago, Cavendish thought his storied career was over when he left Gent-Wevelgem in tears.

Patrick Lefevere gave him a lifeline, and through a mix of luck, back-room drama, and pure class, Cavendish added two more stage victories to his stellar Tour resume to 32 — second on the all-time list.

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With more than half of the 2021 Tour still left to race, the question begs: can Cavendish equal and perhaps even better Eddy Merckx and the all-time mark of 34 Tour stage wins during this year’s Tour?

The answer is a big maybe.

So far, Cavendish avoids answering questions on the topic. Perhaps he doesn’t want to jinx it or sound disrespectful. Cavendish seems intent on taking it day-by-day, and is clearly relishing his surprising return to the winner’s column.

How realistic is it for Cavendish to match Merckx? The odds improved dramatically over the past 72 hours.

On Sunday, Cavendish celebrated as if he’d won a stage when he made it safely within the time-cut during the weekend’s two stages across the high Alps.

Will Cavendish match and perhaps even better the Merckx record in this Tour?

That’s a three-part equation. Let’s take a look at how the stars must align:

There could be up to five more sprints

Mark Cavendish won stage 6 of the 2021 Tour de France.
Mark Cavendish won stage 6 of the 2021 Tour de France. Photo: GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO/AFP via Getty Images

Cavendish needs two wins to equal Merckx, three to beat him, so he needs at least that many bunch finales (and win them, of course).

The only assured sprint we’ll see in the second half of the Tour is in Paris. The Champs-Élysées finish is one of the most important days of the years for sprinters, and Cavendish won there four years in a row (the only rider to do so) during his heyday.

So regardless of who tries to break away, Paris will be a sprint.

Before the bunch arrives in Paris, there could be up to four additional sprints in the second half of the Tour. Tuesday into Valence, stage 12 in Nimes, and stage 13 into Carcassone, and stage 19 into Libourne, all could be mass bunch kicks.

Will all four end up in sprints? Almost certainly not.

Too many riders and teams will be trying to get into the breakaways, and everyone is getting hungry for their slice of the Tour pie. Legs are tired, and the elastic may snap during some of these days that, at least on paper, could be sprints.

But there are enough sprinters and fast finishers who still want their chances. Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic), Michael Matthews and Luka Mezgec (Team BikeExchange), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) are all still winless.

It’s true that Deceuninck-Quick-Step brings a very strong team, but they won’t be able to control an unruly peloton all alone. Cavendish will need like-minded sprinters to send teammates to the front to control breakaways.

Another wrinkle is the green jersey. If Cavendish’s rivals don’t think he will survive to Paris, everyone behind him in the points competition will still want to see at least two more bunch kicks before Paris, to chase points at the line.

The upshot? Cavendish should see at least two chances, perhaps more, between here and Paris. That will give him, at least on paper, the opportunity to match or better Merckx.

Who does Cavendish have to beat?

Peter Sagan came up a few meters shy on stage 6 of the 2021 Tour de France.
Peter Sagan came up a few meters shy on stage 6 of the 2021 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

To be brutally honest, when you look at the current sprinter field at the Tour, it’s not very deep.

If Caleb Ewan had not crashed out in stage 3, Cavendish probably wouldn’t be two wins closer to the Merckx mark. And there’s a laundry list of sprinters who did not start the Tour, and a growing list of those who are gone.

Mathieu van der Poel, Arnaud Démare, Bryan Coquard, and Tim Merlier all left the Tour over the weekend, all good news for Cavendish.

Of course, Cavendish only has to beat whoever is in the race.

And the ones who are here are sprinting with lead boots, so Cavendish will be in with a shot in every stage that finishes with a sprint (assuming he makes it to the line).

Rivals will be trying to drop him not only in the mountains, but also in these upcoming transition stages. Some of the profiles are quite lumpy in the end, and if the speed ramps, riders like Colbrelli and Sagan can still be there if Cavendish isn’t.

The verdict? With the Quick-Step’s red carpet treatment, and with Cav’s confidence flush right now, two more wins (or three) is certainly possible.

Making the time limit

Cavendish celebrates with his teammates after making the time limit Sunday. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

So what could stop him? The time cut.

Cavendish gutted it out in the French Alps and made the time-cut each stage. On Sunday, Cavendish was ecstatic to arrive safely to the line and hugged his teammates as if he had just won a stage.

Now he has to face two climbs up the “Géant of Provence” and three very hard days in the Pyrénées. Will he make it? This could be Cavendish’s Achilles heel.

The last time Cavendish raced the Tour in 2018, he was time-cut in stage 11 in the Alps. Since then, he has not raced up and over any major mountain climbs during a grand tour until this weekend.

He saw some steep climbs in the 2019 Amgen Tour of California, and last year at the Vuelta a Burgos, but he’s not raced any sustained, high-altitude climb in the Alps or Pyrénées in a grand tour since the 2016 Tour de France.

His longest stage race since 2018 was the eight-day Tour of Turkey in May, when he won half the stages.

Also read: Cavendish: ‘I’ve given my life to the Tour’

The big question is whether he will have the legs to go the distance. Insiders said Cavendish is thinner than he’s been in years and healthy again, but that he did not do any special preparation for the Tour because he never expected to race.

Also read: Cavendish doesn’t want to jinx Merckx record

In his favor, Cavendish has the experience to know how to work the “gruppetto.” And the two rest days will give his body a chance to recovery and reload for some more big efforts in the mountains. He can clearly count on his Quick-Stop teammates to help pace him through the climbs.

So could Cavendish equal and better Merckx’s record in this Tour?

It’s suddenly looking a lot better than it was 72 hours ago.

To possibly win two more stages, Cavendish only needs to survive Mont Ventoux and hope that the other stages before the Pyrénées end in sprints. To have a chance to equal and better Merckx without tackling the Pyrénées, stages 10, 12 and 13 would all need to end in mass gallops, and he would have to win all three.

Let’s assume Cavendish survives both the Ventoux and the Pyrénées, and the odds get even better. Stages 19 and 21 could see an additional two more chances.

It could happen, and the odds are slightly in Cavendish’s favor.

Cavendish won six stages in the 2009 Tour and four in the 2016 Tour, so knocking off two or three more just might happen.

With the GC all but locked, the Cavendish story could become the most engaging and suspenseful narrative for the remainder of the 2021 Tour.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.