For almost half a century, with 22 stage wins in a glorious career, André Darrigade has reigned as the top sprinter in the 108-year history of the Tour de France. But as Mark Cavendish will equal his total if he wins today's stage – and could, of course, pull ahead later in the Tour – Darrigade tells The Independent with a laugh: "It's over; he's going to get past me now. I'm done for."
A sprightly 83-year-old who lives in the town of Biarritz, close to his home region of Dax, Darrigade is one of France's forgotten greats of cycling.
He was a world champion – as Cavendish is now – in 1959, and victorious in one of Italy's biggest Classics, the Tour of Lombardy, in 1956. He even won on Cavendish's home soil in 1960, taking the Isle of Man's biggest race, the Manx International. But it was arguably in the Tour de France that he shone the brightest.
Darrigade won the Tour's first stage no less than five times and led the race for 12 days. In a career spanning 16 years from 1951 to 1966 his total of 22 stages, from 1953 to 1964, put him equal fourth in the all-time ranking with Lance Armstrong – and, as Darrigade points out, his victories, unlike Cavendish's, did not always come in 70kph gallops for the line, either.
"My strong point was the bunch sprints, but I'm different to Mark because I could win from breaks too," he said. "I'd often win from a group of four, five or 10 riders."
His climbing was so good that as well as twice winning the Tour points classification he also finished 16th overall three times.
But there are similarities between the two. Whilst Cavendish, until this year, had an entire team working for him in the sprints, Darrigade almost always found himself in the position Cavendish is in with Sky in the 2012 Tour – with next to no backing in the final kilometres. But Darrigade's top priority back then was not even to go for the bunch sprints, something that makes his achievements even more impressive.
"I would be picked for the French national team basically to work for [three-times Tour winner Louison] Bobet or [five times Tour champion] Jacques Anquetil; that's why I could win the first stage so often because so early in the race I didn't have to look after them. But I didn't have any backing in the sprints. No backing of any kind. In those days it was each man for himself."
Darrigade started his career on the track – "like Mark did too, didn't he?" he points out, impressively, given it's often forgotten that Cavendish has two world titles in the Madison – and believes that then as now, "it's ideal for sprinters".
"My racing career effectively started when I beat [future sprint world champion] Antonio Maspes in a criterium in the Vel D'Hiv velodrome in Paris in 1949 but I could use what I learned there on the road. You become better at moving around in the peloton, learn how to use your elbows to get through the gaps."
As a result of his track racing, he also used radically different gearing from most sprinters – like a 50-tooth chain-ring, gearing which would be unthinkable in road-racing today.
"Because we couldn't change our bikes we had a lot more material to nowadays, too. We had to carry the spare tyres across our bodies and then there was the bike pump too. The bikes were a lot heavier as well" – 11kg, Darrigade recalls, compared to the 6.8kg that a bike weighs today. "But you can find the same kinds of differences in any sport. A football today is very different from the ones we'd have in the 1950s too."
As for the two champions' strategies for winning bunch sprints, Darrigade says: "I wouldn't pull myself out of the pack and accelerate hard like Mark, I'd attack from the front. I'd start accelerating 300m from the line, which is a long way, and then try and hold it all the way to the finish. [Classics star Rik] Van Looy would say they should never let me get near the front because then when I attacked, he knew they'd never catch me." Darrigade says he values his World Championship win more than the Tour stages he won, "because you wear the rainbow jersey [of world champion] for the whole year. That said, Tour stages guaranteed you a huge popularity boost in France – it wasn't the same with the worlds. Best of all, though, is to do it like Cavendish and win Tour stages with the rainbow jersey on your back" – as Darrigade did in the 1960 race, winning stage five.
Whilst happy to cede him the honour of being the Tour's No 1 sprinter, Darrigade is reluctant to describe Cavendish – who is poised to win the same number of stages in less than half the number of Tours – as the greatest sprinter of all time. "You can't compare eras; each had different stars and the racing was too different to do that. But he's the fastest rider of his generation."
But if Darrigade – who ran a bookshop in Biarritz for years after he retired – seems more than happy with his career, he says he does envy Cavendish one thing. "He's had the chance to finish the Tour de France with a bunch sprint on the Champs Elysées and not in the Parc des Princes velodrome, as used to happen back in my day in the Tour. To be able to win on the Champs – that must be a fantastic feeling."