Skip to Content

Mark Cavendish Endured So Much To Break The Tour de France’s Most Hallowed Record

Mark Cavendish of Astana Qazaqstan celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the stage 5 of the 2024 Tour de France.
Jasper Jacobs/Belga via AFP/Getty Images

When Mark Cavendish crossed the line in Saint-Vulbas on Wednesday, the first thing that came to my mind wasn't any of his previous 34 stage wins at the Tour de France, but rather his crash at the 2018 Milan-San Remo. It was the lowest moment of Cavendish's career, a high-speed collision with a barrel that left him with a broken rib and ruined his chances of competing for stage wins at that year's Tour. At the time, he was already nursing a broken rib, dealing with an Epstein-Barr diagnosis, and recovering from the broken shoulder that cost him his 2017 Tour de France. It didn't seem like he would ever get close to his peak as the best sprinter in the sport. But today, Cavendish secured one of the most impressive records in all of cycling.

Cavendish's Stage 5 victory allowed him to break Eddy Merckx's longtime record of 34 stage wins set in 1975. His sprint was a masterwork of positioning, patience, and bravery. While Cavendish was hand-delivered to so many of his wins by his dialed-in lead-out train, the finale of Stage 5 was a freelance job. He surfed through a clot of other sprinters and dropping lead-out riders until he found Mathieu van der Poel's wheel, stealing some shelter from his rival Jasper Philipsen. Suddenly Cavendish was in second wheel as the road took a slight bend, and he launched at a hellacious angle across the road, forcing Philipsen to veer with him before he coasted across the line, dropped chain and all.

In a sport where top sprinters' peaks tend to be short, Cavendish's longevity is unrivaled. For his first stage win in 2008, he beat out Erik Zabel, whose son just retired from professional cycling two months ago. The only other active rider who participated in that Tour, Chris Froome, hasn't won a race in six years. Cavendish outlasted André Greipel, Marcel Kittel, and Peter Sagan, sticking around long enough to show his back wheel to a new crop of sprinters who were children when he started. His longtime lead-out man Mark Renshaw is now his coach. His body's been broken and refitted over and over again, and he's fought through ailments and disease to keep chasing Merckx's record. Cavendish has seen and experienced something that few cyclists ever will.

After the Milan-San Remo crash, Cavendish fluctuated wildly between success and failure. In 2020, he gave a weepy interview after a brutal Gent-Wevelgem, speculating that he'd just put in his final day on a bike. One year later, he shocked the cycling world by winning four Tour stages to tie Merckx's record. Just when it seemed like No. 35 was in reach for a tidy narrative ending, Cavendish wasn't selected by his team for the 2022 Tour, his tentative team for 2023 collapsed beneath him, and he arrived at the 2023 Tour with Astana to declare it would be his final attempt. He crashed out on Stage 8, one day after finishing an agonizing second place on Stage 7. Astana re-signed him for one last go in 2024 and it seemed like an ill-fated idea: On the first stage, Cavendish was vomiting on the bike and barely made the time cut.

But the pain is the price. Cavendish, £1,000 socks and all, is in the record books because of his persistence through the suffering. Merckx was not on his mind; he was trying, as always, to win a bike race. "You sprint, you go as hard as you can until you get to the finish line," Cavendish said after the win. "Maybe your life changes if you cross that line first, maybe it doesn't if you don't. That's the nature of this race, and that's what makes it so beautiful."

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter