Mark Cavendish may have been ultra-emotional when he crossed the finish line of stage 6 at Châteauroux, celebrating his 32nd Tour de France stage win with his teammates, but he strongly played down the sentimental side of his victory when talking afterwards to the media.
Since news broke that he would be riding the Tour for Deceuninck-QuickStep in place of the injured Sam Bennett, speculation has been rife that the 36-year-old might win again in the same finish where he took his first Tour stage victory in 2008, and for that matter his 17th three years later.
That speculation became all but deafening after Tuesday’s win in Fougères, where he had won in 2015. His 31st triumph confirmed that Cavendish was more than up to the task of fighting for bunch sprints with the same fire in his eyes he had back in 2008.
But when it came to discussing his win in Châteauroux, Cavendish said he had viewed it purely as another sprint without letting the emotions get in the way.
He also said that despite it looking like his team had the stage all under control in the closing kilometres, Deceuninck-QuickStep had looked for allies and found precious few to help them.
“We thought we had it under control because we thought the teams who brought sprinters here would want a bunch sprint,” Cavendish told reporters in a comment echoing those he often used to make after his Tour stage wins back in the day.
“But in fact it was down to ourselves and Alpecin-Fenix to control it to get results and that just makes me happy we get results. Obviously, Tim Declerq is Tim Declerq and he rides and rides and rides all day, but we knew a breakaway like Greg Van Avermaet [AG2R Citroën] and Roger Kluge [Lotto Soudal] would pull away at the end.
“We’d counted on the other sprinters teams to come in and help bring them back and they didn’t. So we had to commit. Or there wouldn’t have been a sprint anyway.”
With or without outside support, Deceuninck-QuickStep and Alpecin-Fenix were clearly up to the task. Cavendish said that Dries Devenyns, then Mattia Cattaneo and then Kasper Asgreen had kept the tempo high in the final kilometres to ensure things remained as compact as possible. The highest profile turn, though, undoubtably belonged to Julian Alaphilippe in his world champion’s jersey in the final kilometre.
Then, the final part of the job went to Davide Ballerini and Michael Mørkøv, who was “cool as a cucumber”, said Cavendish. The Dane waited for a long time and left a space open on the left-hand side for Cavendish, but the Briton needed a second longer before he first jumped on the Alpecin-Fenix train and finally unleashed his sprint.
Cavendish paused, gave a slightly wry grin and ultimately did not answer when asked if he was conscious about replicating his 2008 and 2011 winning gesture of placing his hands on his head as he crossed the line in victory. But he did say it was a dream to win again in Châteauroux.
“You can’t look on it as a case of ‘no two without three’ or anything like that, rather than looking at it romantically, I had to be practical and remember that I’d won here before,” he reflected.
Not that it was straightforward either – then or now. For one thing, he observed sprinting has changed a lot in 13 years.
“The speed here is ridiculous. In 2008, a 52×11 gearing was standard. Now a 54 is standard, some go 55. The lead-out trains are a lot more efficient. The power these guys have… I’m 36 but I’m a massive fan of all these young guys, I wanted to race against them.”
He had regrets, though, for one rider who was not there and who has racked up more than a few Grand Tour stage wins on his own account, Lotto Soudal’s Caleb Ewan, who was among the green jersey favourites before crashing out of the race on stage 3.
“Honestly, I’m so sad for my friend Caleb,” Cavendish said. “Honestly he’s the one I see that can really play out a sprint, he’s small and jumps from wheel to wheel. It would have been an honour just to sprint against him.
“We spoke the other day and I told him it’s going to be hard, sit at home when the race is going on, but it makes it all the sweeter when you come back.”
After a two-year absence from the Tour, that last observation could apply to Cavendish in 2021 as well.
“When I heard there was a finish here [in Châteauroux] of course it doesn’t make me romanticise here but it definitely reminds me of my first win.”
And as a reminder of his comeback year – not to mention his 50th Grand Tour stage win – Châteauroux will surely remain equally indelible too for Cavendish from now on.