Mark Cavendish overcame a rocky start to the Tour de France to claim the 24th Tour stage win of his career - and what is surely not the last of 2013 - with a faultlessly timed bunch sprint victory at Marseilles.
Cavendish had been suffering from bronchitis since before the British National Championships, held six days before the Tour start and which he nonetheless won. And even a few hours into yesterday’s 228 kilometre grind across the hills of southern France his team told The Independent they were uncertain whether he was well enough to battle for a stage sprint.
But after the disappointment of Saturday’s opening stage - where Cavendish was blocked behind and could not take part, depriving him of a chance of taking the yellow jersey for the first time in his career - on Wednesday, the Briton, with improving health, and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team were back to business as usual.
The first sign that the Manx Missile was back on track came when World Time Trial Champion and Omega Pharma team-mate Tony Martin upped the pace behind a four-man breakaway on the long, draggy climb of the Col de la Gianeste just outside Marseilles.
Another Omega rider, Polish national champion Michael Kwiatkowski then continued to keep the speed high on the long sweeping drop into the city, but the key moment came when wing-man and team-mate Geert Steegmans delivered Cavendish though a dangerous left-hand curve 500 metres from the line to the perfect ‘blast-off point’ for his final acceleration for the line.
And then with less than half a dozen pedal strokes it was there: Cavendish’s 14th victory of 2013 and first of the 2013 Tour, his 104th win of his career and sixth Grand Tour stage win - after five taken in the Giro d’Italia - of the season.
Cavendish’s only possible indication that he is not at 100 per cent was to leave the final acceleration for his sprint until “really really late, 150 metres to the line.”
“Geert was going so fast I really didn’t have to do much except maintain that speed, and I’m still suffering a bit after being ill last week.”
“But we finally got the account open, the team morale is great and the only way to make it better is to continue winning like we did in the Giro d’Italia.” - where Cavendish racked up no less than five stages.
Cavendish’s victory is a first for a British rider in this year’s Tour, and the 28-year-old explained that his departure from the British squad Sky for Belgians Omega Pharma in 2013 was “because I realised that the Tour is everything for me and I wanted to give this race the respect it deserved.” This means, on a practical level, a team like Cavendish’s first squad, HTC, that was prepared to give him full backing in the Tour's sprints - something impossible at Sky, also gunning for the overall classification.
Appropriately enough for a rider whose status in cycling history is growing steadily greater as the years roll by, at Marseilles Cavendish was introduced to former French cycling great André Darrigade, whose all-time Tour record - for sprinters like Darrigade and Cavendish - of 22 stage wins, established in the mid 1960s, the Briton beat last July with his 23rd win, taken on the Champs Elysées.
In an interview last year with The Independent, Darrigade - like Cavendish a former World Champion and track specialist in his day - had already pointed out the similarities between himself and the Briton, and Cavendish confirmed that after his latest victory.
“We have the same kind of build and the same form, and it turns out we think the same way on the bike, too,” Cavendish said. “ I was really proud to have met him, it made my day."
Cavendish’s next target of a second straight victory could come as soon as Thursday in a flat trek from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier, and could see the Manxman draw equal with France’s André Leducq, as the third most prolifically successful stage winner in Tour history, with 25 wins. Eddy Merckx's all-time record total of 34, too, is drawing steadily closer.
Cavendish preferred, as ever, to play down such potential achievements, pointing out that “just to set goals like that either sets you up to fail or means you don't move forward after you've got there. [Anyway] just one stage victory in the Tour is enough to make a rider’s career.” That Cavendish has now taken 24, at least one every year since his second Tour in 2008, is indicative of the level of greatness at which the Briton is now operating.
“He played it perfectly,” Darrigade told The Independent, “the way he used his leadout man [Steegmans] right to the line and then just jumped away so close to the line was exactly what he had to do.”