Mark Cavendish drew equal with all-time sprinting great André Darrigade's total of 22 Tour stage wins yesterday in appropriately dramatic fashion, tearing past the remnants of a breakaway for one of the most spectacular victories of the Manxman's career.
If any demonstration of how ready Cavendish is for the Olympic road race a week today, then it was there in yesterday's performance.
Cavendish's victory was as magnificent as it was well deserved – and within the context of Darrigade's record, totally in keeping with the historic nature of the occasion. Voted the Tour's greatest ever sprinter by semi-official newspaper L'Equipe a few weeks back, one more win for the Manx Missile and the numbers will confirm that achievement once and for all.
Physically there can be no doubting the Briton's condition. After 222 kilometres of racing – just 18 less than the Olympic road race – through the relentlessly rolling countryside of the Garonne and Corrèze, not to mention coming at the end of three weeks of riding the toughest race on the planet and a heavy crash late on yesterday's stage, Cavendish still had enough strength to take Britain's fifth stage win by several bikelengths.
Guided by race leader and team-mate Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in person, then with a final lead-out from Sky's Norwegian powerhouse Edvald Boasson Hagen, Cavendish shot round the corner with the daylong break's remnants firmly in his sights.
Watched by President François Hollande in person, Cavendish's last manoeuvre, powering from right to left before tearing past Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez for the 35th Grand Tour stage win of his career was simply spellbinding. "You caused the first collective gasp of the Tour in the pressroom" one journalist told him later, "Congratulations."
"We didn't know if there was going to be a sprint, it was a hard stage, it could have been easy for the guys to cruise in," Cavendish said.
"[Sky sports director] Sean Yates said if a break goes, then it goes, but I was like 'can we have a sprint please?' and Wiggins said, 'We'll work for that.' It was just amazing to sit behind first [Wiggins] and second [Froome] overall. Then I divebombed round the corner, and seeing there were still quite a few guys ahead I had put all my chips on the table."
Asked if he had a hard time accepting that he was not the top priority for Sky this year, Cavendish said "completely the opposite".
"We've got a chance to do something incredible for British cycling this year and I'm so proud to be part of it.
"It's great being in the team but it [prioritising the yellow jersey] puts me in a difficult situation, I'm not doing what I can do as an individual rider."
If Cavendish's place in the history books is already guaranteed, yesterday's victory cemented his spot among the very greatest of cycling even further. With 22 stage wins, he is the equal fourth most prolific winner in the Tour, alongside Darrigade and Lance Armstrong, and Sunday's finish on the Champs-Elysées, where he has won every year since 2009, should see him draw ahead.
As for the Olympics, Cavendish said: "It's really important, it wasn't an easy stage, it was lumpy with 2,000 metres of climbing and despite a block headwind we still averaged 45 kph.
"So there were times I was suffering, and to get over the final climb and sprint can really give me confidence [I am] in good enough condition."
Wiggins, meanwhile, is now just 48 hours away from making history himself, as Britain's first ever Tour de France winner. Today's final challenge of the overall contenders, a pancake flat individual time trial just south of Paris, should – barring last minute disaster – be an opportunity for Wiggins to demonstrate why he is overall leader and perhaps take Britain's second stage win in as many days.
"Now there's that final time trial stage we'll focus on that," he said.
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