Romance and fate appeared to be aligning. The Tour de France had left the Pyrenees, the sprinters had survived, and the fast men had a date in Bordeaux. More specifically, Mark Cavendish had an appointment with history.
It was in this famous French city in 2010 when Cavendish, right in the midst of his devastating pomp, claimed his 14th victory in the race, and 13 years on he had brought his family back to the banks of the Garonne where they were, according to destiny, about to watch the fastest cyclist of all time claim Tour win number 35 and become the race’s outright stage record holder.
Logic and form differed with fate, and Jasper Philipsen, already with two wins under his belt this week, stood as clear favourite and the best sprinter in the pack. But this was a pan-flat run in, an identical repeat of the same finish in 2010, and Cavendish - chirpy, smiling and happy throughout his last ever appearance in the race - had shown his turn of speed with a fifth and a sixth place; the 38-year-old had been making a mockery of his advancing years.
In town on a hot and humid day was his wife Peta; their eldest daughter, Delilah Grace, had scribbled ‘Allez Cav’ in marker pen onto her left hand. They watched tentatively, nervously, but with hope from inside the Astana-Qazaqstan bus.
Read more: Before there was Paris, there was Bordeaux: meeting sprint legend André Darrigade
With one kilometre to go, the peloton charging into the centre of Bordeaux with the murky river on their right, Cavendish was in 24th position and mostly out of the television shots. There was no panic. “I was in quite a good position. It might have looked far back but I was where I wanted to be,” he said.
Cees Bol, the “amazing” Dutchman as Cavendish referred to him, brought him into position. “He is like an assassin,” Cavendish added. “He did a perfect, perfect job.” With the hundreds of metres ticking down, and with Cavendish’s photographic memory no doubt guiding him as hurtled towards the finish line, he appeared from the centre and darted to the right. Within a second he was out in front. Intakes of breath were sharp and audible. But then Philipsen, the unstoppable Belgian, emerged from Cavendish’s slipstream and into the headwind to pip him on the line.
Cavendish was despondent after stage seven (Photo: James Startt)
Cavendish, sullen and distraught, came back to his bus, enraged about a mechanical issue - “I had a problem with my gears when I was sprinting from the 11th [sprocket] to the 12th, and I had to sit down and then stand back up,” he later explained - and walked up the steps. The Netflix cameraman was warned by a team staff member not to intrude, implying that Cavendish was fuming.
Some time after, he reappeared, his jovial utterances replaced by a low-spirited whisper, one that was barely audible and was indicative of his mood. “I am utterly devastated,” he sighed. “Really, majorly disappointed.” There's a slim chance of victory on Saturday but the uphill finish will probably count against him. Sights, therefore, are readjusted to next Wednesday, and if required there'll be another go in Paris, but he knows that Bordeaux, this agonisingly-close moment, might have been his chance. His one shot.
“We have been here before,” Peta told the Netflix cameras, and, yes, we have. For all of the accolades, acclaim and Cavendish’s 162 professional wins, the near-misses, the despair, and the immense disappointment are fundamental to his story. They’re what make him immortal, what prompted an elderly British man to peer from behind the press scrum to shout “you’re a legend Cav, a f**king legend”, and they are what makes each victory even more meaningful.
Wednesday into Moulins will feel like an eternity away right now, but the greatest sprinter of all time will be there, in the mix, hoping and praying that he is about to write yet more history. He’s got the form, he’s still got the speed, and he has the knack to find a way past Philipsen. The story will rumble on, and if the past tells us anything, it’s that there will be the glorious finish he and the rest of us crave.
Cover image by Alex Whitehead/SWPix