An irrepressible Mark Cavendish made it a hat-trick of wins in Châteauroux, blasting past his sprint rivals once more to claim a 32nd stage win in the Tour de France. Victory in stage six’s drag-strip finish, which he described as a “massive old-school Tour de France sprint”, demonstrated that the momentum once lost to his career has returned with a vengeance.
With two stage wins in three days, the rider whose form was so cold that he was virtually frozen out of cycling is now piping hot again. This time there were few tears, just jubilation, as he hugged his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates beyond the finish line.
Cavendish, winner in Châteauroux in 2008 and 2011, is now within two wins of matching Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage victories, although it is a landmark he has always been quick to dismiss. Once thought out of reach, equalling that remarkable tally now looks distinctly possible.
Some will point to the absence of major rivals such as fellow sprinters Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen and Cavendish’s own teammate, Sam Bennett, but there is no doubt the former world champion is now the man to beat in this year’s race.
“There’s an incredible group of sprinters here,” Cavendish said, “and the speed the sprints are going is ridiculous. The speed is incredibly high and the lead-out trains are a lot more efficient. I’m 36, but I’m a massive fan of all these young guys and it’s an honour to race against them.”
Cavendish, who is leading the points classification, will have one eye on the sprint stages remaining in this year’s Tour, but on Saturday the first mountain stage, to Le Grand-Bornand, heralds a second week that includes several major climbs and a double ascent of Mont Ventoux.
“I’m taking each day as it comes. That’s not just this year, that’s every year,” he said. “Tomorrow [stage seven to Le Creusot], with the distance, it’s not going to be an easy day. It’s 250km and punchy at the finish. I think we have a hard day on our hands before we hit the mountains.”
Before the stage started the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, confirmed the legal action being launched against a 30-year-old Frenchwoman for causing the mass crash on stage one of the Tour, to Landernau, had been dropped.
“We are withdrawing our complaint. This story has been blown out of proportion but we wish to remind everyone of the safety rules on the race,” Prudhomme said. “If you come to the Tour, you hold your kid, you hold your pet and don’t cross the road carelessly. And above all, you respect the riders – they’re the ones worthy of live TV.”
Greg Van Avermaet, animator of the day’s breakaway, was among the riders who were in favour of dropping the case. “People make mistakes, and she made a big one,” he said, “but it’s not good to be too crazy about it. A lot of things happen in this race without somebody getting sued, so I think, make a bit of an example, but if I look at how much she already has been through, it’s too much for me.”
The idea of using barriers on the full length of the stage route each day, considered as a solution by some, was dismissed by Van Avermaet, who will defend his Olympic road race title in Tokyo, after the Tour ends on 18 July.
“We have to educate more, make sure everybody keeps their distance,” he said. “We had problems with that in Yorkshire one year and it was super dangerous. We have to respect the distance between the riders and the public, but it’s nice also to be close to the public. This was only one person out of millions at the roadside.”
Dave Brailsford, principal of Ineos Grenadiers, agreed. “I’m sure she has suffered enough. Maybe a face-to-face apology to the riders would be a good thing, but the key is to try to educate fans of the risks and dangers,” he said.
“She clearly had no intent to hurt anyone, came to support — not injure — the riders and had taken time to make her sign before she got to the race. She made a very bad spatial awareness judgement call. Rather than punishing her, use her on social media to say: ‘I made this mistake, don’t make the same and please be careful.’ It’d get a lot of views and be a great platform to promote safety.”