Mark Cavendish cements comeback with emotional win at Tour de France

Mark Cavendish ended his years in the wasteland with a sensational return to success in the Tour de France and to Fougères, winning stage four of the 2021 edition, to take his 31st career stage win in the race. Cavendish also won the 2015 Tour’s stage finish in Fougères.

“Three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have imagined this,” he said after. “This race is everything to me as a professional.”

Cavendish, drafted in by Deceuninck-QuickStep at the last minute to replace the injured Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, was back to his very best and justified the faith shown in him by the team manager, Patrick Lefevere. After crossing the line first, a sobbing Cavendish was overwhelmed and hugged his teammates.

Racing in the slipstream of the lead-out man, Michael Morkov, Cavendish burst out of the peloton in the slightly uphill sprint to the Boulevard des Deportes to pass the final breakaway survivor, Brent Van Moer, and complete his astonishing comeback to the Tour.

“I thought with 10 kilometres to go we weren’t going to get him,” he said of Van Moer’s last-ditch attack. “We were stressing a bit. But it shows how well my team can adapt. But then you see world champion Julian Alaphilippe throw everything he has away and sacrifice it all just to try and catch the break back and deliver me in the front.

“I needed a bit of luck, and had to go the long way around, but I just had fire in my eyes,” the 36-year-old said of the sprint. “I knew this finish and the last time I did it, I had fire in my eyes too. In 2008, in Chateauroux, where we go on Thursday, I tasted victory in the Tour de France for the first time, in the race I grew up dreaming of. Every single time I have stood on the podium since then, it’s been the same.

“It’s almost been forgotten how hard it it is to win a Tour stage. It’s not easy at all. That’s been the hardest thing to put up with – people not understanding the sacrifices I put in to win those 30 stages. This race has given me the life I have, and I have given it the life I have. I’m just happy to be back. It sounds silly but it means so much to me. From the first time in 2008 until now. I’m living a dream.”

After a lengthy battle to overcome both Epstein-Barr virus and clinical depression, Cavendish had been written off by some. “It’s not about proving anyone wrong,” he added. “It’s nice to prove someone wrong. Half that press room hasn’t written a good story for longer than I haven’t won a bike race, but they’re still here at the Tour. I wanted to be here for myself.

“I just needed someone who knows bike racing and who understands me as a person and that was Patrick Lefevere. I re-signed for this team because I knew those were the happiest days of my career and I just wanted to be in a happy environment again. When I’ve been at my happiest is when I have had my best results. I needed a happy place, I needed a team that functioned as a team, I needed a bike that fit me – that’s why I wanted to come [back] here to Deceuninck-QuickStep.”

The stage start had been marked by a brief rider protest, led by the German sprinter André Greipel, illustrating the peloton’s unhappiness over the conditions that had led to so many crashes in the opening three days of racing. “The riders paused in solidarity as part of their calls for UCI to set up discussions to adapt the three kilometre to go (time neutralisation) rule during stage races,” the riders’ union, the CPA, tweeted.

“That’s going to be pointless,” Matt White, the Team Bike Exchange sports director and former professional, told the Guardian. “The CPA is a toothless tiger. The courses can be modified and I think they can start to look at the rules. Just because the rules are there it doesn’t mean they can’t be modified.”