After 18 years on the cutting edge of cycling in a career measured in millimeters and milliseconds, Mark Cavendish It will stop at the end of the season. He will do so by becoming the greatest sprinter of all time and perhaps Britain’s greatest cyclist: a little-loved sports icon who has accomplished extraordinary things time and again.

His career has been rich in diversity, from the blood and thunder of the velodrome to the suffering of the Alps and everything in between. He is a world and Commonwealth champion and Olympic medalist on the track, as well as a world champion on the roads. But above all, his career is forever. Tour de France. As Cavendish said after winning the first Tour stage for five years in 2021: “This race gave me the life I had and I gave it the life I had.”

Cavendish’s life can be calculated in Tours, not years. It’s hosting its 14th race this summer, making its final move, beating Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. Cavendish tally equalized in 2021. The latest form, which finished third on a stage in last week’s Giro d’Italia, suggests that another win is still possible, although unlikely. There are six straight days in this year’s Tour de France: the final six tries for #35.

Whether he wins once again will not change the rider he was before. No other sprinter has come close to his dominance and longevity, winning 20 stages in the four years between 2008 and 2011. Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan are two rivals with “only” 14 and 12 Tour de France stage wins, respectively. Check out the list of heralded sprinters who have been cycling for over a century – Erik Zabel, Freddy Maertens, Mario Cipollini – and no one has even half of Cavendish’s Tour tally.

There’s a certain romance in sharing the record with a cycling giant like Merckx, who was waiting at the finish line in Carcassonne to congratulate Cavendish on his 34th win two years ago, and Cavendish’s tally is even more remarkable than the great Belgian. considering the limited opportunities each year for pure sprinters. He won the race’s Paris final four times on the Champs-Elysees, where it takes heavy muscle over the Alps and the Pyrenees to get to the starting line, a pain the rider in the yellow jersey will never taste.

And yet, I have a feeling that for Cavendish’s achievements to be truly appreciated outside of the cycling bubble, one more Tour stage will help him score points. His sometimes abrasive and introverted nature maybe didn’t help here. But few British athletes like Cavendish can claim to be the best in their discipline, and this talent has not always been celebrated like the stars of other sports or even their cycling peers such as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

They all won yellow jerseys, but to do so they needed systems in place, teams precisely designed to dominate, so strong that their leaders were sometimes interchangeable. Cavendish has also drawn on the talents of his teammates, particularly trusted lead men such as Mark Renshaw and Michael Morkov, but his career has been heavily built on two piston feet, forensic readiness, and unmatched racing acumen.

He would spend his evenings perusing his itinerary and perusing Google Maps to figure out the next day’s route. He would study the last mile: the bumps of the road, its surface, every bend, and the right turn to the optimal angle to take the last bend. Cavendish has it all memorized: Ask him about the final throes of a stage he won 10 years ago and he’ll memorize every pedal stroke.

Mark Cavendish won on the Champs-Elysees in 2009

(Getty Images)

Along with his raw power, he has the dose of madness every sprinter is willing to ride from hip to hip at 50mph, attacking a small gap, knowing all too well the pain that awaits if an open door slams shut. Most importantly, Cavendish has the instincts to visualize these gaps before they emerge, surf wheels, and decide at exactly the right moment of the blast.

“You can believe it or you can doubt yourself,” he told The Independent in 2019. And you’re about to lose.”

Over the course of the three grueling weeks of the Tour de France, much of a sprinter’s job can be reduced to a few key moments that lead to several straight finishes: win a stage by an inch and the Tour is considered a success; They lost and failed. Cavendish and the Tour is a love-hate relationship fueled by the pain of defeat and addiction to victory. “Every time the Monday after the tour I say, ‘I’m never going to do this again. Then four days pass and I say, ‘I can’t wait until next July’.”

Now 38 years old, this will be his last. For those who enjoy watching Cavendish come invisibly at the nose of a race and rise to the line, a Tour win will be no more. But getting ahead of Merckx could solidify his achievements in the minds of those who didn’t – one last wave of fresh air in his own right.