Cavendish chasing the greats after hitting top gear to claim 24th stage
Briton holds off Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen — Stage Five victory is Cavendish’s first at this year’s Tour
The peloton cycles past Sisters of the Cosolation congregation during the 228.5 km fifth stage of the Tour de France from Cagnes-Sur-Mer to Marseille Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
The hands were raised and then whirred as if Mark Cavendish were banishing the illness and ill-fortune that has clung tightly to him at this year’s Tour de France. And then came a smile, as wide as the gap to those he had left behind.
After a week when a bronchial infection has sapped Cavendish’s strength, and a crash on the first stage bruised both his chances of a first yellow jersey and bloodied some of his team-mates, this 24th Tour stage victory came as a sweet remedy.
It moves him to within one victory of the Frenchman Andre Leducq, who won 25 stages at the Tour between the wars, and within sight of Bernard Hinault, second on the list with 28. For now Eddy Merckx, with 34, remains out on his own – just like he often was during his racing days – yet Cavendish could overtake him if his legs stay as strong as his hunger. For now, though, he prefers to live in the moment.
“I’m super happy with that, but it still wasn’t easy,” he said. “I’m still suffering. I’m a lot better but I’m still not 100 per cent after being ill last week.”
But this was much more like the Cavendish of old. As the peloton arced down the Avenue du Prado and leant into the last of the course’s 55 roundabouts he was in a prime position, just behind his lead-out man Gert Steegmans. Then, as the pair hit the Avenue Pierre Mendes, he waited until there was 150m to go before releasing the trigger. Edvald Boasson Hagen in second, Peter Sagan third and Andre Greipel fourth, were immediately left chasing the minor places.
“The sprint wasn’t too difficult,” admitted Cavendish. “I didn’t really do anything. If I’d lost that I would have let the guys down. Matteo [Trentin] did a massive turn and then Gert went at such speed I didn’t have to accelerate: I just carried on the speed that he delivered me.”
Earlier, the fifth stage, 228.5km from Cagnes-Sur-Mer to Marseille, followed the classic template of a long, mostly flat day. An early breakaway and a gap that grew almost imperceptibly to over 12 minutes. A half-hearted chase for the next 160km. And then the upping of revs leading to a final, chaotic, group sprint.
Of the four riders in the breakaway in the final few kilometres, Europcar’s Kevin Reza was attempting to become the first black cyclist to win a Tour stage, while his team-mate Yukiya Arashiro was striving to be the first Japanese rider to do the same. But after being alone for more than 220km the game was up for them – but not for Cavendish.
“When I reached the uncategorised climb [12km from the finish] I remembered it,” said Cavendish. “It’s in the Grand Prix d’Ouverture La Marseillaise in 2007. That was my first race as a professional. We turned left and I thought I know this climb, Jeremy Hunt won it the year I did it, so I knew I could hang on.”
On the line he was greeted by the great French sprinter Andre Darrigade, who won 22 stages of the Tour in the 1950s and 1960s and at 84 still twinkles with energy and mischief: “He is a fantastic rider,” he said. “He can win a lot more.”
There was no change at the top of the general classification with the group finishing with the same time as Cavendish. That means Simon Gerrans stays in yellow for a second day.
The promise of more riches awaits during today’s 176.5km sixth stage from Aix en Provence to Montpellier. When the Tour was last in Montpellier in 2011 Cavendish won the stage. A repeat prescription would do nicely.