Inside Project 35: How Mark Cavendish has prepared for his Tour de France swansong

As the start of the Tour fast approaches, Mark Cavendish's coach reveals how the Manxman has been preparing for his bid at history

Before Mark Cavendish kneels before King Charles III to receive his knighthood, there is one final script to be written at the Tour de France: stage win number 35. Speak with the Manxman’s entourage at Astana-Qazaqstan, and hope is turning to increased optimism that a fairytale ending could be in sight. “I remember giving an interview before the 2021 Tour when Mark was called up at the last minute, and I said then that if Mark could win one stage, he would win four or five stages, because once he’s got momentum he cannot be stopped. And what did he do? He won four stages,” his coach Vasilis Anastopoulos tells Rouleur.

The landscape three years on from a Tour that also brought with it the second green jersey of Cavendish’s career is not so different: then, he carried the wishful dreams of many, as he does now; he was a veteran, and he is now – 39 as opposed to 36; and he was coached by Anastopoulos and had both Michael Mørkøv and Davide Ballerini in his leadout train, as he does now. The difference? This time, his support network is even stronger, with his former teammate Mark Renshaw now employed as an Astana sports director. “I’m really optimistic,” Anastopoulos goes on, “because I think we have the best leadout train in the Tour. Ballerini, Mørkøv and Cees Bol are all in good shape and not many teams can challenge us. And, of course, Mark’s experience is second to none, especially in the Tour de France.”

It was originally planned that last year’s Tour would be Cavendish’s last one, but he reversed that decision in the wake of his race-ending crash on stage eight. This year’s edition, however, will definitely bring the curtain down on a glittering career that has yielded 164 wins and will act as one final opportunity to rewrite yet more history.

Ups and downs

Project 35 has been in the works since July 9, 2021, the day that Cavendish won his fourth stage of that year’s Tour in Carcassonne, equalling Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour victories. The Briton was denied the opportunity to return to the Tour the following year, but almost took victory on stage seven on the 2023 race in Bordeaux, a bouncing chain in the final hundred metres denying him a historic triumph. A day later, in a cruel twist of fate, he was on the ground clutching a broken collarbone.

After committing to one final season, Cavendish got his season underway in ideal fashion, winning a stage of the Tour of Colombia and then taking his second win of the season at May’s Tour of Hungary. Both came against modest opposition, but a win is a win, and at 39 the Manx Missile has demonstrated that he still has the firepower to win bike races.

Mark Cavendish, Tour de France 2024

“It’s been a season of ups and downs,” Anastopoulos reflects. “We started well in the winter with everything on schedule, but he had to stop [before stage six] of the UAE Tour as he wasn’t feeling so good. At Tirreno-Adriatico he still had a bad cold and one day Mørkøv was waiting for him as he finished outside the time limit. We gave him a chance at MIlano-Torino, but his legs just weren’t turning. We took the decision to pull him from racing and to give him time to recover, because though he wasn’t really bad, he’d been coughing for three weeks and it wasn’t healthy to put him into more races.”

Cavendish returned to his native Isle of Man while he got better, and one night called Anastopoulos. “He said, ‘Vasi, there’s a small race on the island tomorrow - can I join in?’ I said, ‘sure, go for it, have fun’.” And so he did, paying £20 to sign on for the Nick Corkill Memorial Race, using the 50-mile course as training, sitting up towards the end and rolling home in 29th place. “When he goes back to the Isle of Man, he’s like a child again,” Anastopoulos says. “And that amateur race was good training for him.”

From his home island, Cavendish and his family flew to the Greek capital of Athens in April – a country where he has frequently trained in three of the last four seasons. “He really likes it in Greece, and gradually we could see that his condition was building again,” Anastopoulos says. The Tour of Turkey then followed, but there was to be no repeat of three years ago when he won four stages. “We used it as a training race, but if it wasn’t for a mechanical on the final stage, he would have been close to winning,” Anastopoulos remembers.

A 10-day return to Greece ensued, and then Cavendish headed to Hungary he took his first win on European soil since stage 21 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia. “He was in decent shape and won a stage against Dylan Groenewegen and other good sprinters,” Anastopoulos says. “He did a really good sprint that day.”

A two-and-a-half week altitude camp in Spain’s Sierra Nevada took place between the Hungarian race and last week’s Tour de Suisse, with the intention being that a sustained period of training in high mountains would serve him well during the forthcoming Tour. “There were more sprint stages at the Tour of Slovenia [which ran concurrently to the Tour de Suisse] but we went to Suisse because the Tour de France is extremely hard, and the Swiss mountains will help get him stronger for the Tour climbs,” Anastopoulos explains. “We’ll be focusing on his sprinting in the last 10 days before the Tour.”

Tour ready

In analysing his condition less than a fortnight out from his 15th and final Tour, Cavendish said of the Tour de Suisse that he “got through it relatively OK. It was never going to be a race full of stage wins for me and my sprint group but we came here to prepare for the Tour de France and we’ve done that in a very good way.” Anastopoulos is equally content: “Everything has gone OK recently so I can be happy. We don’t have any major issues and Mark is feeling satisfied with the team and the equipment.”

Mark Cavendish

So will he do it? Will Sir Cav nudge ahead of Merckx to become the outright Tour de France stage wins record holder? “I’m not going to say that he’s going to win one, two, three or whatever, but we have said from the beginning of the season that the target is for him to arrive there in the best physical condition, and he is now where I expected him to be,” Anastopoulos says.

“I cannot predict what will happen, but we’re confident that he’s going there healthy and in good condition, in a shape similar to what he had in previous years. Last year he didn’t have a sprint train except Cees Bol and the reality was he was finding the best wheels to follow. This year we’re confident he has the best leadout train, he won’t be looking for Jasper Philipsen’s or anyone else’s wheels, and if we stick to the plan, anything is possible.”

The only doubt Anastopoulos has is how he ought to refer to Cavendish from now on. “Do I have to change his name in my phone’s contacts to Sir Mark?” he laughs. “It might take some time to get used to, but if anyone deserves to be called a sir, it’s Mark.”

Shop now