MARSEILLE, France -- Mark Cavendish will never be the greatest Tour de France rider, because he will never win the race five times like Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Frenchman Bernard Hinault. Still, the sprinter with thighs like thick hams could outdo both those legends -- by winning more stages at cycling’s premier race.
By Cavendish’s warp-speed standards, his 24th stage win on Wednesday was a ride in the park. The teammates who led Cavendish to the finish, sucking him along in their wheels, building up his speed, were toiling like clockwork. Stamping on his pedals, head down, thighs pumping like pistons, Cavendish then whooshed off alone for the last 150 meters (yards), leaving everyone else in his wake.
Cavendish was carrying so much momentum and this win in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, was so comfortable that he was able to sit up in the saddle and make a hand motion like cracking a whip as he crossed the line.
One more stage win will tie Cavendish with Andre Leducq, the Frenchman who got 25 stage wins in the 1920s and 1930s, putting him third on the all-time list. Beyond Leducq is Hinault, who notched up 28 wins in the 1970s and ‘80s. Merckx’s monument is 34, won from 1969 to 1975. Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain also won five Tours, but didn’t win as many stages as Hinault and Merckx. Anquetil won 16; Indurain got 12. All seven of Lance Armstrong’s Tour wins were stripped for doping.
Cavendish says he isn’t fixated on Hinault or Merckx’s numbers. He notes that for many riders, winning just one stage -- let alone the 11 he needs to surpass Merckx -- is a career-defining feat.
"You have to show the Tour de France the respect it deserves," he said.
But then Cavendish isn’t any other rider. Before this edition, he collected on average nearly five wins at every Tour since 2008. In 2009, he got six. He won the last four sprint finishes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where he is unbeaten since 2009. While Merckx’s record is still a way off, Hinault and most certainly Leducq look within Cavendish’s grasp.
Were Cavendish to overtake Hinault, it wouldn’t mean he is a better overall rider than the famously bad-tempered "Badger," who was strong on every terrain. But in a sprint, Cavendish has no equal, at least in this generation.
Although Cavendish downplays the chase for stage-win milestones, he is certainly very aware of them. The Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, says that more than a year ago, at the Tour of Oman, he quietly tested Cavendish’s knowledge of Tour de France history and was delighted when he rattled off the names of Andre Darrigade, who won 22 stages in the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as Leducq, Hinault, Merckx and their respective totals.