The wounds will heal, the broken bones will mend, but the strong flavour of might-have-been will endure, assuming that a banal crash on the road to Limoges does indeed mark the end of Mark Cavendish’s 16-year relationship with the Tour de France. The proviso has its place, because although Cavendish has announced he will retire this season, those of us who have followed his career since his first flirtations with the world of professional cycling have learned that you should never say never in his specific case.
If this is indeed the end, it is better to recall the image from Bordeaux on Friday afternoon, of Cavendish doing what he has done best for 20 years, bursting out of a flat-out, jostling peloton at a speed that looks unnatural to mere mortals; in the case of Bordeaux on Friday, well north of 45mph.
That second place to the unbeatable Jasper Philipsen will have been the final surge in a Tour career that marks Cavendish out as the undoubted nonpareil of sprinters, the best there has been across all three Grand Tours. If, as seems likely, he winds up on parity with Eddy Merckx in the list of stage winners, on a total of 34, that does no disservice to either man. The Belgian and the Manxman have had entirely different career trajectories, with completely different skill sets in different eras, but are united in greatness.
Cavendish’s Tour career began with a bang and a whimper; two heavy crashes in the 2007 race after the London Grand Départ led to tears on the road to Canterbury and an abandon in the Alps, but the signs that he might eventually rival the best were already there.
In 2008, at the finish in Châteauroux, the series began, as Cavendish held off the veterans Óscar Freire and Erik Zabel, effectively marking a generational shift. Three more stage wins followed, before another withdrawal that always stuck in his craw. Instead of contesting more stages, he made a tactical retreat for an unsuccessful attempt at the Olympic Madison title in Beijing.
In 2009, Cavendish turned the HTC-Columbia team into a winning machine, backed by a lead-out machine that was headed by fastmen Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel, he took a further half dozen stage wins, culminating in a dramatic one-two on the Champs Elysées with Renshaw in his wake.
In the space of two Tours, he had gone past Barry Hoban’s record for British stage wins, one that had taken Hoban eight years to complete. That Tour included two wins that pointed to the breadth of his talent: a win at La Grande Motte over an elite group that had pulled away in cross winds and included all the overall contenders and another at Aubénas after the bunch had been decimated over a final second category climb.
The HTC era came to an end in 2011, after 20 stage wins, and in 2012, Cavendish – by now world road race champion having taken the title in Copenhagen – had to contend for the first time with a team that was not devoted to his service, with Team Sky directed solely at taking overall victory for Bradley Wiggins.
That gave rise to the bizarre spectacle of the world champion collecting bottles at the team car, but also the unique sight of a yellow-jerseyed Wiggins guiding his former Madison partner to stage wins at Brive, and, most iconic of all, on the Champs Elysées, where he became the first rider to win in the rainbow jersey.
“Peak Cavendish” ended there, as from this point on the stage wins, mostly, became harder to find. Thedre was a mini-masterpiece in 2013 en route to Saint Amand Montrond, guided by the Quickstep team, but 2014 was fallow after a nasty fall on stage one at Harrogate. The next landmark came in 2016, a victory at Utah beach giving him the full house of leader’s jerseys from all the Grand Tours to go with the complete set of points winners’ jerseys. By the end of that Tour, he had racked up his 30th stage win, meaning the Merckx record was within reach.
Illness, injury and depression marred his next few seasons, before a last-gasp lifeline was offered by Patrick Lefevere at the Quickstep team in 2021. Even then, with the reigning Tour points champion, Sam Bennett, in the Quickstep team, it seemed unlikely that Cavendish would make the Tour until an injury ruled out the Irishman.
That offered Cavendish a final golden July at the age of 36, by which point most Tour sprinters have long since headed for retirement, with four stage wins pulling him level with Merckx. It will be zero consolation, but Cavendish has left the Tour as one of the fastest on the road, pushing back the years against riders 10 years and more his junior, and within tantalising reach of a goal no other sprinter has even approached.
He has an immense amount to be proud of when the time comes to weigh and measure his career.