Mark Cavendish is close to tears again. It is 24hrs on from his extraordinary, redemptive win in Fougères on Tuesday but every time he thinks about it his eyes begin to mist over. The reaction of his family, in particular, clearly touched him deeply. A video on his phone of his three-year-old son, Casper, who is “cycling-obsessed”, cheering him on while watching the denouement to the stage, has been getting a lot of playtime.
“Casper’s like a Mini-Me,” he says, proudly. “Short little legs. Full gas. Doesn’t stop. It’s incredible to think that Fred Wright [the Bahrain Victorious rider who is the youngest in this year’s Tour de France at 22] could actually ride with Casper one day. I mean, Fred’s closer in age to my kids than he is to me.”
It is a sobering thought. Cavendish’s victory on Wednesday was special for many reasons. It was his 31st Tour stage win, taking him to within three of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record. It was his first in five years. But most of all, it came after four brutal seasons of injury and illness - both physical and mental – which would have caused 99 per cent of athletes to quit on their stools. Eight months ago Cavendish did not even have a contract for 2021. No one, but no one, predicted he could do this at the age of 36.
Crucially, Cavendish never stopped believing in himself. Patrick Lefevere, Deceuninck-Quick Step’s manager, gave him the chance to prove himself again, he built his confidence back up, Sam Bennett got injured, and the rest is history.
Having come so close to the abyss, he is taking nothing for granted now. On Wednesday Cavendish rode the first of this Tour’s two individual time trials wearing the green jersey – 10 years on from winning it in Paris.
It was a day when the general classification battle took centre stage again, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) just about clinging on to his yellow jersey in the face of a brilliant ride from defending champion Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), but that was just fine with Cavendish. He was still in a trance.
“The legs felt surprisingly good,” he says, speaking from his hotel. “I was so tired last night but I couldn’t sleep at all. I had over 600 messages on my phone. But I felt OK today. Obviously you get a buzz from wearing the jersey. But the public reaction, too....that really spurred me on.
"I’ve had such a good reception this past week. The whole thing has been amazing. Of course, it’s mostly, ‘Allez Julian! [Alaphilippe]’ But the reception I've had from the public, on the bike, off the bike, has been incredible and so, so touching.”
As Cavendish reminded us in his press conference on Wednesday, one Tour stage win can make a rider's career. Just let him enjoy this one. But inevitably the mind begins to wonder what he might do next. Could he, after all these years, go on to equal Eddy Merckx's record? Could he even win green again this year? The idea would have seemed ridiculous a week ago. Cavendish had hardly ridden up a hill this season, let alone a mountain. He has to get over the Alps and the Pyrenees, not to mention Mont Ventoux twice on the same day, if he wants to reach Paris and fight for those points.
But after what we have seen over the last few days, nothing would surprise.
Understandably, Cavendish is not even entertaining such questions. He repeats what he said in the build-up to the race which is that this is still a bit of a voyage of discovery.
"It’s the mountains that are the unknown for me," he says. "Like I said last week, I was never worried about the sprint stages. I know the work that I’ve put in to prepare for the sprints, and the team that I have around me. That’s what gives me confidence. Honestly, I sit each day on the bus and look around and think how lucky I am. Sitting behind Michael Morkov, who is behind Davide Ballerini, and if something happens to Ballerini, like it did on Wednesday, then you have Julian... the list goes on.”
Again his eyes begin to mist over. "Having Julian do that [on Tuesday] - go all in for me. That was incredible. Without Julian there we wouldn’t have caught [breakaway rider Brent Van Moer]. 100 per cent. Julian took the initiative and threw caution to the wind. He’s the French world champion, he’s worn yellow, he was wearing green… that was incredibly inspiring."
Cavendish will have his Rolls Royce leadout again on Thursday on the run-in to Châteauroux. It’s a place he knows well. In fact, if a Hollywood scriptwriter was penning the scripts for this Tour, he could hardly have chosen a better town to visit next. Cavendish won his first ever Tour stage in Châteauroux way back in 2008, 13 long years ago. What emotions will that inspire?
Cavendish considers the question. And just like that, he is all business again. “Look, I could give you a nice romantic spiel about my first win but the truth is it’s irrelevant,” he says.“It’s not about emotions now. The biggest thing is I know the run-in. I’ve done it twice. That’s what I can take from it. It’s a slight drag uphill, a big boulevard sprint, 1.5km to the line...”