Professional cycling as a sport gets very little coverage in the sub-continent. Yet the three-week-long Tour de France, the most prestigious event on the professional cycling calendar, is actually the third most watched sporting event in the world, behind only The Olympic Games and the FIFA Football World Cup. Incidentally, with the 32nd Olympic Games scheduled to start a few days from today, the 108th edition of the Tour de France came to a close this Sunday. While the race for overall victory (General Classification) went largely uncontested with 22-year-old Slovenian prodigy Tadej Pogaçar dominating the field and claiming his second consecutive Tour victory, there is another story that has captured the attention of the cycling world. 36-year-old British sprinter Mark Cavendish, who made an unlikely return to the Tour after an absence of 2 years, won the points competition for the 2nd time in his career. Much like Pogaçar he outclassed his rivals, winning 4 stages of the 21-stage competition. With his 4th stage win in this year’s Tour, Cavendish equaled Belgian Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stages wins at the Tour de France, the most by any rider.
Cavendish’s story is nothing short of a fairy tale. Hailing from the tiny Isle of Man, Cavendish turned professional in 2005 and quickly became one of the most decorated cyclists in the world, notching up victories in track cycling events, road race classics and stage races. He was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Virus in mid-2018, however, which all but ended his dominance in sprints. After continuing to traipse through the 2019 and 2020 seasons without achieving much in terms of results, an emotional Cavendish hinted at a possible retirement at the end of the 2020 season as he couldn’t find a contract for the next season. Eventually, in December 2020, following an outpouring of support from fans and other cyclists, Cavendish managed to find a contract with Deceuninck – Quick-Step, a team with which he had tasted plenty of success in the past. Despite this fresh lease of life, however, Cavendish was not viewed as a top contender in sprints with younger and faster sprinters like Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan vying for the tag of the fastest in the ultra-competitive modern pro-peloton. In fact, many were questioning the wisdom of Deceuninck – Quick-Step team boss Patrick Lefevere in making the addition of Cavendish to the “Wolfpack”, as his uber-talented and highly successful squad is popularly known as. There were signs of a turnaround though, at the 2021 Presidential Tour of Turkey in April, where Cavendish won 4 stages out of a total of 8. However, pundits rationalized the results by claiming none of the top sprinters in the world were competing at the race. Another wake-up call came on the 5th stage of the Tour of Belgium in June, where Cavendish outsprinted a field containing the likes of Caleb Ewan and Tim Merlier. Even then the critics were not convinced, as Deceuninck – Quick-Step already had Sam Bennett, considered the fastest sprinter in the current peloton, in their squad. However, after an unexpected turn of events, Cavendish, who had made no secret of his desire to race at the Tour once again, was given a spot in Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s team for the 2021 Tour de France, somewhat controversially at the expense of Sam Bennett.
It was when he won Stage 4 of the Tour de France to Fougères, his first Tour stage victory since 2016, that everyone woke up and took notice. With the Australian Caleb Ewan out with a crash on Stage 3, whispers started doing the rounds, “Can he actually do it?”. “It” obviously referred to equaling, and maybe even surpassing the 46-year-old record of 34 stage wins at the grandest bike race of all set by Eddy Merckx. Gradually, as he notched up 2 more stage victories, both Cavendish and the critics grew in confidence. Eventually, on Stage 13 to Carcassone, Cavendish equaled the record. As the stages progressed, optimism transformed to conviction, that he would create history by bettering the long-standing record on the iconic final stage of the Tour on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. However, the perfect fairy tale wasn’t to be, as Merckx’s compatriot Wout Van Aert snatched victory on the final stage.
Yet, it has been a comeback the like of which is rarely seen in any sport. For his part, Cavendish has vowed to return to the Tour next year in search of the record setting 35th stage victory. Irrespective of whether he eventually achieves that milestone, however, the Cavendish story is inspiring enough for all sporting fans to take note of.