Witnessing history: The Mark Cavendish magic

Rachel Jary recounts what it was like to see the Manxman’s breathtaking 35th Tour de France stage win 

“This is a bit of a nondescript place, isn’t it?” 

We were walking down the finish straight of stage five of the Tour de France on the outskirts of Saint-Vulbas, a small village on the edge of the French Alps. The road had been freshly tarmacked and the setting around us was industrial, quiet and barren. Fans were steadily gathering by the sides of the road, the pops of yellow on their clothing and the flags they waved adding a lightness to the grey, rainy afternoon. There was still three hours to go until the riders would arrive, and the stage was rolling along slowly. We sat on a patch of dry, patchy green grass to watch things unfold on television and soak in a moment of calm in the chaos that is the Tour de France. The contrast could not have been harsher when compared to the stuffy, heavy heat and crush of crowds at the Italian Grand Départ a few days before. 

As the kilometres ticked down, the tension around the finish line began to heighten. On TV, lead-out trains made their formations and the mood in the peloton began to shift. This was no longer a slow transitional day in rural France, the teams were realising what was at stake: a stage win in Le Tour, one of the few chances of the race for the fast men. The opportunity was biggest for one rider in particular: Mark Cavendish had the chance to win his 35th stage. He could become the record holder.

As we stood by the finish line, Cavendish’s wife and family walked along the barriers by the side of the road. In those moments, they merged with the rest of the fans awaiting the riders arrival. As the peloton sped closer, though, their body language started to give away that this day meant more to them than anyone else. They knew the time, dedication and sacrifice that had gone into Cavendish getting to this point.

The noise built in a crescendo. First came the sound of the helicopter overhead, then the cheers of the crowd, then the sirens of race vehicles and shouts of gendarmerie, then whoosh of wheels as the riders approached.

From where I stood, my view of the finish line was obscured, but I began to understand what was happening from the shouts: “Cavendish, Cavendish!” The mania of the fans gave it away, the smiles on their faces, their frantic punching of the air. Then the man himself arrived.

He cut through the crowd at speed before coming to an abrupt stop: “We did it! We f*cking did it!” he yelped. Davide Ballerini was the first one to greet him, and Cavendish jumped into his arms, plonking a kiss on the Italian rider’s cheek. Then the people crowded in, photographers, journalists, fans, teammates, they all wanted Cavendish. The man who had just written history. The greatest sprinter there has ever been.

I stood back and watched the moment happen. The gravity of it all was not lost on me: when I was 13 years old, I’d watched Cavendish win Tour de France stages in his HTC-High Road kit, I’d saw him smile and celebrate and I was inspired by him, as so many have been. The interviews after the stage from Cavendish’s fellow riders, his former teammates and sports directors all shared the same sentiment: this was one of the most iconic days in our sport. One of the final acts from one of cycling’s very best entertainers, we all knew how lucky we were to have front row seats.

And Saint-Vulbas was the setting for it all. That small commune in the Ain department of France which had won the bid for a Tour sprint stage in 2024 became the centre of the sporting universe on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in July. It will, forevermore, be the place where Mark Cavendish finally did it when the world was watching. He’d sprinkled some of his sprinting magic there, because that’s what the Manx rider does. He’s proof that, with self-belief, nothing is impossible. Miracles can happen. Fairytales can have happy endings. Small towns in France can be the place where history is made.

Shop now