When Mark Cavendish rides on to the Champs-Elysées today, wearing the green jersey of best sprinter, whatever then happens – and he could well take a fifth stage win – the 26-year-old Manxman will have carved another huge milestone in British cycling. Not since Robert Millar was crowned King of the Mountains in 1984 has a Briton gone into the final stage of the Tour as the leader of a classification. Cavendish is also the first UK rider to wear the green points jersey.
However, as the rain pattered down on the HTC-Highroad team bus yesterday morning, Cavendish told The Independent on Sunday that he was entirely focused on a third straight win in Paris today.
"It really is up to other people to think about [history], not to me," he said. "I've just got a job in hand, and that job's winning. What I've got to do is get across that last finish line in first place, and there's still one intermediate sprint too. Normally a break would take care of the points on offer there, but not tomorrow. So it'll be nice to go on there wearing green, but it's not over yet."
If Cavendish is looking no further than the end of the stage, it is more than just a case of being modest. Physically, he is very close to the end of his tether. His face sagging with fatigue, the Briton revealed that even after getting through the third and perhaps toughest of the Alpine stages on Friday, he could not get to sleep – and that this has been a very difficult Tour.
"It's been a savage, savage Tour, 100 per cent the hardest I've done by far," he said. "I came into this Tour lighter than ever and in my best form ever, but it was still exceptionally tough. Even the overall contenders are saying it's been the most difficult."
Yet it is to Cavendish's credit that in a year when the route did him no favours whatsoever, he has made it to within 95 kilometres of flat racing of taking the green jersey. That is arguably the hardest achievement for any sprinter, even in a normal year.
To call his success richly deserved is no exaggeration. Cavendish has 19 stage wins in the Tour, and only six other riders are now ahead of him. But for two years – and, for many supporters, unfairly – the green jersey has eluded him. Although the organisers changed the rules this year to favour the sprinters, Cavendish said the new system of sprint points had been only a qualified success: "[Race organiser Christian] Prudhomme's plans for the green-jersey regulations, they've kind of worked. But I've had to work really hard for it, no doubt about it. The way they designed the route hasn't made it easy at all. It's good, but I'm absolutely shattered."
He said that without his HTC-Highroad team-mates, he would not be anywhere near the green jersey. The support from British fans on the roadside, particularly those from his native Isle of Man, has been exceptional too.
"I only got through because of them," he said of his team. "I'm so proud of them. And there have been so many Isle of Man flags out there too. The fans have been really special –I can't thank them enough."
Anger has also motivated Cavendish. He has been accused of hanging on to team cars on climbs. He denies the claims, and his team and the organisers have backed him.
"It's funny, I've been going into his room each evening and seeing him so angry about those criticisms, that's made him a better rider," said the HTC-Highroad director, Brian Holm. "If a rider's too happy, they don't perform so well. With all this stuff, it's become Cav against the world."
Next stop, then, is Paris, where Cavendish will be greeted by groups of fans from the Isle of Man as well as his girlfriend, Peta Todd. After that comes the Olympic test event in August and the Tour of Spain. But for now, all that matters to the Manxman is a white finish line, halfway up the Champs-Elysées.