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Cavendish the comeback king: From injury, illness and hints of retirement to making cycling history

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“That was perhaps the last race of my career,” a tearful Mark Cavendish said in mid-October.

Now, less than nine months on, the 36-year-old has penned what is perhaps one of sport’s most thrilling comeback stories.

In the process, the Manxman has further staked his claim to be Britain’s greatest-ever cyclist and cemented his place as the best sprinter the Tour de France has ever seen.

Cycling - The Tour de France cycling race - The 208.5-km (129.5 miles) Stage 14 from Montelimar to Villars-les-Dombes, Parc des Oiseaux, France - 16/07/2016 - Team Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish of Britain wins on finish line. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier
Image: Cavendish took the 30th of his stage wins in 2016 – but would have to wait five years for his 31st

With 34 stage wins in the bag – matching a record held by Belgian legend Eddy Merckx for close to half-a-century – Cavendish has achieved what, at one point, seemed almost a formality.

In Villars-les-Dombes Parc des Oiseaux in July 2016, Cavendish secured the 30th of his stage wins and, at the age of 31, it seemed only a matter of time before he matched and then beat Merckx’s record.

With a physique naturally suited to sprinting and a coolness and sharpness of mind that he has admitted to training with sudoku puzzles, Cavendish appeared destined to become the Tour’s greatest-ever stage winner.

However, Cavendish subsequently ended his participation in the 2016 Tour early in order to prepare for that year’s Olympic Games.

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And then began a cruel four-year ordeal of crashes, injury, illness – both physical and mental – and the heartbreak of non-selection for cycling’s most famous race; all of which made the dream of 34 stage wins seem certain to be left unfulfilled.

In 2017, Cavendish withdrew from the Tour with a fractured shoulder blade after a horror crash in the last 200m of the finish to stage four.

Cycling - The 104th Tour de France cycling race - The 207.5-km Stage 4 from Mondorf-les-Bains, Luxembourg to Vittel, France - July 4, 2017 - Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish of Britain gets medical assistance after his crash next to the finish line. REUTERS/Stephane Mantey/Pool
Image: The Manxman crashed out of the 2017 Tour

He was eliminated in the 2018 Tour after missing the time cut on stage 11 and, shortly afterwards, announced he would take an indefinite break from cycling as he continued his struggle with Epstein-Barr virus, commonly known as glandular fever.

He returned to racing the following year but, after failing to display his best form again, he was dramatically not selected by his then team Dimension Data for the 2019 Tour.

FILE PHOTO: Cycling - Tour de France - The 108.5-km Stage 11 from Albertville to La Rosiere Espace San Bernardo - July 18, 2018 - Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish of Britain finishes. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo
Image: Mark Cavendish was elminated from the 2018 Tour de France as he continued his battle with illness

Describing himself as “absolutely heart-broken”, Cavendish made his displeasure clear with his team bosses by pointing out he was “in the perfect place” to compete after tailoring his training to peak for that year’s race.

The controversy saw him change teams to Bahrain McLaren for the 2020 season, but he again suffered the pain of non-selection for that year’s Tour, which was delayed from its usual July slot due to the COVID crisis.

However, Cavendish was much more sanguine about missing out for a second year in a row, admitting he would not have been ready for the race even if selected.

Earlier that year, Cavendish had revealed he had been fighting depression alongside his recovery from Epstein-Barr’s, frankly admitting: “I was dark.”

Yet, from that point, began a series of events that have now finally seen him match Merckx.

A move to his previous team, Deceuninck-QuickStep, for the 2021 season saw a rejuvenated Cavendish join cycling’s “wolf pack” – which counts among their number world champion Julian Alaphilippe as part of perhaps the strongest sprint leadout team in the professional peloton.

However, a reunion with the Tour still seemed a distant prospect as Deceuninck-QuickStep already had Sam Bennett, the winner of the green jersey at the 2020 Tour, on their roster.

Four stage wins at this year’s Tour of Turkey showed signs that Cavendish was almost back to his best – prompting a growing chorus of voices beckoning Deceuninck-QuickStep bosses to allow the 36-year-old to continue his French love affair.

And, with Bennett failing to recover from a knee injury, finally came Cavendish’s chance to once again take up the chase of 34; an opportunity he has since seized with the full ferocity of a 70km/h dash for the line.