Eddy Merckx backing ‘deserving’ Mark Cavendish for stage win record
Eddy Merckx stood on stage in the Tour de France village in Mourenx on Friday, in the middle of the velodrome that bears his name following his epic stage win there in 1969, and left his audience in no doubt about what he hoped might happen later that day.
“I hope he wins 35 to stop me being asked about it,” the Belgian said to applause. “He deserves to. He is a great champion.”
It was a lovely moment. Merckx, generally acknowledged to be the greatest rider the sport of cycling has known, has frequently been depicted during this race as being rather mean-spirited and ungracious about the prospect of Mark Cavendish surpassing his Tour stage wins record.
His various observations when asked about it, pointing out that he also won five yellow jerseys in his career, or that he spent “2,800km in front, [whereas] Cavendish did that for six seconds”, have resulted in numerous memes and jokes at “The Cannibal’s” expense.
“If Merckx was on @Strava, he’d be the guy flagging everything and calling Strava’s customer support twice a week,” observed former pro Phil Gaimon on Twitter.
“Breaking: Eddie [sic] Merckx says his team hotels were raided three times during his career and that getting your hotel raided was much harder in his day,” was another sarcastic tweet from @JournalVelo, gently mocking Merckx in the wake of the Bahrain Victorious police raid in Pau earlier in the week while also indirectly reminding us that Merckx had three doping violations in his career.
All of which may be true. Merckx is proud of his record. And he did get caught up in three doping controversies in his career. Let the record show, though, that the 76-year-old has also been perfectly happy to lavish praise on Cavendish.
In the fullest interview he has given during this race, to the Belgian journalist Stephane Thirion, of Le Soir, Merckx was fascinating about the Manxman’s manners when Cavendish stayed at his house in Belgium during his first stint at Deceuninck-Quick Step.
“He was the only one who cleaned his room and left it tidy,” Merckx recalled. “A gentleman of exemplary manners.”
Merckx added that Cavendish might well be the greatest sprinter in cycling history and that he would have no qualms should the British rider surpass his stage record in this Tour. “On the contrary,” he said. “Why would I? I sleep very well, thank you. I don’t have nightmares [about it]. I’ve never been that bothered by numbers; the history of cycling evolves and follows its own course.”
The simple fact is Merckx was stating the obvious when he spoke about winning five yellow jerseys and stage victories over all types of terrain.
He also won six further grand tours, every monument at least twice, and the Hour Record, in a career in which he racked up over 500 wins in total. That record will never be surpassed. The Belgian is a legend of the sport.
And so is Cavendish. Some fans were left aghast when video footage emerged on social media on Friday night of the 36-year-old throwing a temper tantrum before the start of stage 19.
Clearly unhappy with the set-up of his bike, Cavendish berated an unfortunate mechanic, in full view of fans, before storming on to his team bus shouting obscenities.
It was not a good look. But can anyone say they were really surprised?
Cavendish has always been like this. Like Merckx, he is obsessed with winning. Restless. A perfectionist. Quick to anger. Highly strung. He can act abominably. He is also nearing the end of his first grand tour in years, and he is clearly feeling the pressure, knowing the eyes of the world are on him.
That does not excuse his behaviour, but it does help to explain it – and why he has a chance of achieving his 35th Tour stage win on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday.
You might say that four stage victories and (in all likelihood) the green jersey, a decade after he last won it, is more than enough, and that Cavendish should be thankful for what he has already got.
Why, you might ask, is he so stressed out? Was it not only eight months ago that he was on the scrapheap?
But riders such as Cavendish, such as Merckx, are not wired the same as normal human beings. They are driven in a way most of us cannot comprehend.
It is what separates them from the merely great. Merckx recognised a kindred spirit at the start on Friday. “I hope you win the stage today,” he said as he embraced Cavendish. It did not happen then, but Cavendish has one last shot on Sunday. Tom Cary
Hello and welcome to our rolling blog from the Tour de France’s final stage, the 108.4km ride from Chatou to the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Today’s live coverage will start at 3.15pm
Three weeks after setting of from Brest in and having put 3,306km into their legs, for one last day the tired and weary peloton will cock its collective leg over 142 top tubes for one last day of riding. And for some, one last day of racing. With the general, mountains and youth classifications all but sealed up – all Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) needs to do to take home all three for a second year running is finish the stage within 5min 20sec of second-placed Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and also within the time limit – the focus today will centre around both the points classification and a certain British sprinter who if he wins will set some sort of record.
For the final time at this year’s Tour, here’s a quick reminder of who will be what what as respective leader in each of the four main classifications – in other words those that officially hold jerseys. The aforementioned Pogacar will have the maillot jaune, the leader’s yellow jersey, draped over his shoulders for a 13th day running, taking an almost unassailable lead of 5min 20sec into today’s stage. Barring a spectacular collapse, the 22-year-old will be taking home a second maillot jaune after the race finishes later on this evening.
Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick Step) will be dressed in the maillot vert, the green jersey awarded to the leader in the points classification, and would appear the favourite to take that home. It is not a given that the Briton will add a second green jersey to his collection and will have to keep an eye on Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) that can mathematically overhaul Cavendish.
There is a maximum of 70 points up for grabs today – 20 at the intermediate sprint and 50 for the stage win on the Champs-Élysées.
The maillot à pois, the polka dot jersey of the leader in the mountains classification, will be worn by Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) who had targeted the competition, but it is actually led by Pogacar. With just one point up for grabs atop the category four climb in the early part of today’s stage, all Pogacar needs to do to seal the mountains classification is complete the stage within the time limit.
As overall leader of the race, Pogacar also tops the best young rider classification, although Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) will wear the Slovenian’s maillot blanc, the white jersey, as second best.
For anybody that missed Wout van Aert’s second stage win at this year’s race on Saturday, you can relive the highlights here . . .