Renaissance man Cavendish has Merckx's record in his sights
Almost the most remarkable thing about Mark Cavendish's Tour de Renaissance - and there is plenty to go at, with the Manxman clocking up his third stage win in the first six days of this year's race - is that already it feels entirely normal.
If you had predicted one week ago that Cavendish (Dimension Data) would beat his arch rival Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) in three of the four sprint stages in the first week, you might have been sent to see the Tour's race doctor.
Cavendish had not once beaten the German in the 14 sprints they had contested prior to this race. But as Cavendish launched himself off Kittel's wheel on the slightly downhill finish into Montauban and then held off the German's counter-attack to win by half a wheel length, there was barely a murmur of surprise from those within the sport.
This was his 29th stage win at the Tour, putting him one clear of Bernard Hinault in the all-time list and just five behind Eddy Merckx.
Of course, he played down any talk of overtaking the Belgian. Cavendish hates that question.
"I like to give the race the respect it deserves and not think about the numbers," he said. "I'm just looking to win more, to win as much as possible."
But the truth is, there is now no reason to think he cannot go on and pass Merckx. He is still young enough, he clearly has the leg speed, and as he showed here he can still win any which way the sprint shakes down.
Whereas at Utah Beach on Saturday and again in Angers on Monday he profited from strong work by his lead-out, yesterday he lost his team-mates and had to surf wheels all the way to the finish. "Oh my God, that was terrifying," he said. "That was like the old days, just wheelsurfing. It was just carnage in the final. I just went. I maxed out. I should've put an even bigger gear on. I had Kittel coming on my side again, but I just did what he's always done to me for the last three years and held him out."
BMC's Greg van Avermaet finished safely in the pack to retain the yellow jersey but the general classification is all likely to change as the race enters the Pyrenees today. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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