It took 14 Tours de France for Frenchman André Darrigade to record his 22 stage wins, a race record for a sprinter that Mark Cavendish is fast approaching after scoring victory No. 21 on Monday. If Cavendish, still only 27 and riding his sixth Tour, continues at the same win rate per Tour he’s going to catch Eddy Merckx and the all-time record of 34 stage wins by the end of 2015. And by then he’ll still have a good five Tours left in his legs….
The reigning world champion didn’t need a lot of help in this Tour’s second road stage across crowd-packed Belgium to the city of Tournai. His Team Sky colleagues were naturally focused on keeping its GC leader, Brad Wiggins, out of danger, but Cavendish didn’t miss having a lead-out train because he had his rapid Norwegian teammate Eddy Boasson Hagen ready to slip him into the top 10 positions entering the final kilometer. The confident Cavendish then jumped onto the wheel of his main rival here, André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol, before unzipping a second acceleration to pass the big German sprinter in the dying meters.
“I had the perfect lead-out and Cavendish took advantage of it,” Greipel said right after taking second place. “The sprint was into a head wind and slightly uphill, and he waited until the last moment. I really wanted to win this stage [for my Belgian team], so I’m very disappointed.”
Greipel is getting used to being disappointed at the Tour. Two weeks away from his 30th birthday, the former East German policeman didn’t make his Tour de France debut until last year because he was on the same High Road team as Cavendish for five years until 2011. And the younger, faster Cavendish always got the team manager’s nod for the sprinters’ slot at the Tour. And when he finally got his chance last year, Greipel managed to beat Cavendish on only one stage, when in a mano-a-mano drag race at Carmaux, the Brit jumped too soon and marginally faded in the final meters.
So Monday saw one of the rare duels between the two fastest sprinters in the peloton, but Greipel will likely get the better of the Brit on one of the upcoming stages—especially if he gets a tailwind finish, which is more favorable for Greipel in view of his dedicated lead-out train at this Tour. Cavendish will just have to rely on his Sky teammates, especially Boasson Hagen and Bernhard Eisel, to deliver him within firing range of the other sprinters before free-lancing his way between and past them before the line. Just as he did Monday.
But whomever Cavendish has had to compete against to take his 21 Tour stage victories it has been his ability to accelerate from what is the top speed of the other sprinters that makes him so special. He and Greipel are pure sprinters and don’t expect to get anything out of the Tour than stage wins, unless they get within range of winning the green jersey later in the race—as Cavendish did at last year’s Tour when he had powerful lead-out men Mark Renshaw and Matt Goss, who are now on rival teams and looking to win sprints themselves with Rabobank and Orica-GreenEdge respectively.
Modern-day sprinters have a much narrower focus than did Darrigade when he was amassing his 22 stage wins between 1953 and 1966. The blond-haired French star was an all-rounder, as confirmed by his placing 16th overall at the Tour on no less than three occasions. Those performances showed that Darrigade could not only sprint but was also a strong team worker for the French national team leaders, including Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil. Darrigade could even hold his own in the climbs—as he proved by winning the semi-mountainous Tour of Lombardy classic in 1956.
Like Cavendish, Darrigade won the world road championship (in 1959), but unlike the Brit, who took the title in a mass sprint last year, the Frenchman earned his rainbow stripes by out-kicking a small breakaway group. Twelve of Darrigade’s Tour stage wins came in the 1958 to 1961 period, and not always in field sprints. At the Tour five decades ago, bunch finishes were much more rare—long-distance breakaways were nearly always successful back then because of the national teams format, which meant there were fewer teams and the main ones nearly always had riders in the breaks. So the strongest teams had no interest in chasing down breakaways on the flatter stages, which were often as long as 250 or 300 kilometers!
Darrigade, who is now 83, comes from Dax in the southwest of France. When his hometown last saw a Tour stage finish there, 12 years ago, he came to the finish to greet the older Tour followers who’d known him in his racing days. That 2000 Tour stage was won by the Italian Paolo Bettini from a small breakaway group. Appropriately, Bettini was a rider not unlike Darrigade because he too put the world title and Tour of Lombardy on his palmarès.
Though Mark Cavendish has won 21 stages of the Tour and the rainbow jersey, the only single-day classic he’s likely to win is Milan-San Remo. And he’s already won that! But for now, even though he’d like someday to aspire to winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, Cavendish is fully focused on winning the likely upcoming sprinter stages later this week, at Rouen on Wednesday, St. Quentin on Thursday and Metz on Friday. By then, the Manx Missile will have surely passed Darrigade’s total and be shooting for Merckx’s record.