He’s done it so many times before that it shouldn’t be surprising, but when Mark Cavendish crossed the line in first place in stage four there was universal shock… even from the rider himself. The sprint maestro has won again, his 31st stage victory at the Tour de France!
“You couldn’t have written this thing. I’ve won so many races in my career and this one definitely is one of the best.”
– Mark Cavendish
Mark Cavendish took his time to get to the post-stage interview in Fougères. First, he needed to thank every member of the Wolfpack, and it wasn’t just with a fist-pump and a nod of the head. One by one, he sought them out in the mayhem that ensues after the finish of a Tour de France stage. And one by one, he embraced them, holding tight while tearfully offering a few words we never got to hear.
We didn’t need to know what was said, it was obvious. Thank you, was the sentiment, thank you very much!
“I am so grateful to Patrick [Lefévere], to my coach Vasilis [Anastopoulos], to everyone in the squad,” he said later, when he finally did manage to speak to the media.
“It’s hard to imagine how this team is if you’re from the outside, but believe me, this really is a Wolfpack, and I am incredibly happy to be part of it.”
It was a sprint finish, of course it was. Sprinting is what has made Mark Cavendish a sporting superstar. The 36-year-old has been there and done it all since he was a teenager. It shouldn’t be surprising that he has won again but it is – and even those closest to him will admit they had doubts he’d add another to his tally of 30 Tour stage wins.
He wasn’t even supposed to contest the Tour de France in 2021, but on the fourth day he’s won again, in Fougères where he’s won before, with a gloriously well-timed surge, head down low, pure speed and fearlessness, impressive bike handling all on display in a matter of seconds.
From when he was in the wind to when he crossed the line was only a brief moment in the larger story of ‘Cav’ and the TDF, but it’s a sequence that will be replayed in slo-mo over and over again.
The vision will be examined and considered in broadcast studios around the world and analysis will be offered by commentators who explain what makes this bike racer someone special, someone capable of the biggest victories and the biggest surprises.
The pictures will also surely play out in Cav’s mind for years to come. It was something that happened but it must have felt like a dream.
First, the capture of Brent De Moer
‘It’s a flat stage. It’ll be a sprint.’ If it was said once, it was said a hundred times. The profile of the fourth stage begged for a bunch finish and, thankfully, this time the roads were wider and accidents aren’t the talking point.
Eventually, it would come down to a bunch sprint but if you watch the final 5km only, you’ll see a cycling highlights reel that reminds us of why bike racing is so exciting. And you’ll also wonder: how is it possible that Brent De Moer finished in 49th place? He was so close to winning that he could taste it, but the most combative rider of the day was swallowed up by the Wolfpack inside the final 150 metres and hearts of cycling fans around the world sunk.
It was a gallant display, a committed attempt to make amends for the reality that Lotto Soudal’s leader – Caleb Ewan, really the man most likely to have won stage four – was no longer in the race. De Moer attacked early, he worked up an advantage, he pushed on all the way to Fougères, and he made many believe he could indeed hold off the peloton.
He didn’t quite get there, and once the capture happened he coasted to the line: if it’s not first place, it may as well be 49th. De Moer is a talking point of the stage, and he’d have scored more coverage for his efforts had it not played out the way it did.
But when Cav wins again, five years after he racked up four victories and increased his TDF tally to 30, the focus shifts from the beauty of a breakaway to an assessment of the sprint. This time, however, it’s not just a matter of considering which wheels the Manxman followed and how he managed to get in position to show his speed.
The typical post-stage analysis did play out, but before re-watching the footage and looking at it from all angles – seeing the capture of De Moer, watching the Alpecin-Fenix lead-out work, and realising that the Wolfpack was back doing what it does so well by perfectly delivering their guy to the line – we watched Cav work his way through the crowd.
Each one of his Deceuninck-Quickstep team-mates earned an embrace and words of praise from a tearful Cav.
Asgreen, Cattaneo, Ballerini, Declercq, Devenyns, Mørkov, Alaphilippe… it was them who pushed Cav back into the headlines. It was their efforts – and their belief – that made this win happen, and made it so special.
“When you have the world champion and green jersey wearer [Alaphilippe] giving everything and sacrificing himself for you, then Michael [Mørkov] who played it so smart and remained calm at all times, it just motivates you to do the best,” said Cavendish when he finally found the words to explain what made him so emotional.”
Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour and the man conducting the emotional post-stage interviews, is a friend of Cav and he knew how to elicit some comments after a win that nobody expected to happen. Instead of asking about his emotions as would have been so tempting to do, Piquet asked about the race.
Cav relaxed a little, he could talk about the particulars of a well-executed finish… but it seemed impossible for him to find the words that explained what he was feeling.
“It was a hectic finale, and we had to throw our initial plan to the wind and adapt, but the guys did a flawless job and delivered me perfectly. They were absolutely brilliant and all I can say is a massive thank you!”
– By Rob Arnold