As the French like to say, eating whets the appetite. So on Friday, the morning after winning the 32nd Tour de France stage of his career at Châteauroux, Mark Cavendish did not rest on his laurels, but formed part of a decisive 28-rider escape on the longest stage of the race. He spent much of the 249km run to Le Creusot several minutes ahead of the field, along with some of the strongest one-day racers in cycling: Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Philippe Gilbert and Vincenzo Nibali.

Given the hills that peppered the finale of the stage, Cavendish was never going to take his tally to 33 stage wins at Le Creusot. His motivation was the green jersey on his back, which is worn by the Tour’s leader on points; his target came 115km into the stage at the village of Saint Benin d’Azy, where he made sure of winning the intermediate sprint, gaining 20 points on adversaries such as Peter Sagan, Jasper Philipsen and Nacer Bouhanni. That gave him the strongest possible chance of retaining the jersey at least until Monday’s rest day, unless Van der Poel takes a serious interest.

Having achieved his short-term goal of a stage win, and added a second, Cavendish was thinking more long-term, about targeting the second Tour points prize of his career, 10 years after the first in 2011. That spoke volumes about his newfound confidence a week into the Tour. Considering he had been talking tearfully about possible retirement a few months earlier, with no teams appearing to be interested in hiring him after a long spell in the wilderness, his comeback is remarkable.

Assuming Cavendish survives the weekend’s mountain stages in the Jura and Alps, with three flat stages this week he will have a chance of equalling the outright record for career stage wins in the Tour, although passing Eddy Merckx’s 34 would require an improbable clean sweep. Were that to happen, it would arguably be the crowning prize of his illustrious career, world championships, Olympic medals and Classics notwithstanding. Merckx is the greatest figure in road racing history, and he gained his 34 en route to five overall victories in six attempts. If the Manxman were to take it, it would probably be on the shelf for all time.

Cavendish has persistently dismissed any talk of the record. He has every reason to focus on the here and now, given the dark place that he has emerged from. After fighting his way back from a series of heavy crashes and a lengthy bout of the Epstein-Barr virus in 2017-19, he raced like a shadow of himself in 2020, and ended the season making suicide breaks in one-day Classics. At the finish of one, Ghent-Wevelgem, he tearfully told interviewers that his career might be close to an end. At 35, he was at an age when most sprinters have accepted the march of anno domini.

Mark Cavendish crosses the line in Châteauroux to win the 32nd Tour de France stage of his career.
Mark Cavendish crosses the line in Châteauroux to win the 32nd Tour de France stage of his career. Photograph: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

At the last minute, he snagged a contract at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step team, prompted partly by their manager, Patrick Lefevere, recalling his successful spell there in 2013-15, also by securing a personal sponsor to pay his wage. His progress to the Tour was a matter of fate: he won five races in the run-in but would still have stayed at home if his team’s No 1 sprinter, last year’s Tour points winner, Sam Bennett, had not had a knee injury. That background prompted his floods of tears after the breakthrough at Pontivy, tears which were probably shared on sofas around Europe.

Merckx’s tally of 34 stage wins is The Record That Cannot Be Named, in Cavendish’s presence at least. But in the same way that not mentioning Voldemort underlined the Harry Potter villain’s immense status and made him a constant presence in all wizard minds, this gives the record greater significance and keeps it hanging in the air. And the Manxman’s mantra that even a single Tour stage is worth a career raises an obvious question: how many careers are 32 worth? Let alone 34, or 35.

Cavendish’s stage victory on Thursday at Chateauroux was a crucial step forward. Winning at Pontivy on Tuesday could have been a one-off; repeating the feat two days later in front of the same rivals in a classic wide-road, dead-straight finish confirmed that, working off the back of his leadout man Michael Mørkøv, Cavendish is the fastest sprinter currently in the race. That knowledge gives even greater incentive for his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team to support him through the tough days, such as Wednesday’s double ascent of Mont Ventoux, and for Mørkøv and the rest of his leadout train to be inch-perfect in the flat finishes this week at Valence, Nîmes and Carcassonne.

Cycling’s greatest champions are never content. Merckx, famously, would “sprint whenever they waved a flag”. Bernard Hinault, a ball of aggressive energy, couldn’t bring himself to let his teammate Greg LeMond win the 1986 Tour de France without making him work for it. Roger de Vlaeminck, arguably the greatest one-day racer in the sport’s history, was still trying to beat men 20 years his junior on training rides when he was the wrong side of 40. In that context, it was no surprise that on Saturday, Lefevere said that he had opened negotiations with the Manxman for 2022. The concept of quitting when you are ahead must seem outlandish when you on the crest of one of the greatest comebacks cycling has seen. Now that he’s back out front, Cavendish may well want to stay there.