Eddy Merckx says Mark Cavendish is pretty tidy | a recap of Stages 10-15 of the 2021 Tour de France

After a frenetic first week that ended with Tadej Pogacar 5m18s ahead of his closest credible rival, the headline news from the second week is that the Slovenian is now… 5m18s ahead of his closest credible rival.

Fortunately, the Tour de France is never short of a story.

Cavendish matches the all-time record for stage wins

The week began with a third Mark Cavendish win. A fourth would follow later in the week.

Last week I tried to express the incredibly unlikelihood of this Indian summer and how it adds a whole new dimension to the sporting greatness of the Manxman. (That dimension being the fact that he persisted through years of nothingness after so many years of somethingness.) It is however also worth taking the opportunity to set his achievements against the man who up until now held the record for Tour de France stage wins alone.

To reach his current tally of 34 stage victories, Cavendish has ridden the Tour 13 times. Eddy Merckx rode it seven times. The Belgian won the race overall on five of those occasions.

Cavendish has won the green jersey competition once. Merckx won it three times – including in 1969 when he also took both the overall and the mountains classification.

Cavendish has won 15 stages at the Giro. Merckx won 24, plus five overall wins.

Cavendish has won three Vuelta stages. Merckx entered the race once and won six (and obviously won overall).

You start getting into World Championships and one-day classics and the contrast becomes even more marked. None of this is to denigrate Cavendish in the slightest. It is a compliment to both of them. Eddy Merckx won 45% of the races he entered one year. To be mentioned in the same breath as him, you must be a truly incredible cyclist.

Responding to this week’s development, Merckx told Le Soir: “I haven’t seen him in a long time, but in his first period with Quick-Step Mark Cavendish sometimes slept at my home, with some other riders, during the criteriums. Mark was the only one who cleaned his room and left it neat and tidy.”

That’s how you pay tribute, people.

Mont Ventwo

When Merckx won on Mont Ventoux in 1970, he collapsed and needed oxygen afterwards. It is not a mountain you want to climb twice.

It can get windy up there too. And remember that time Chris Froome had to get off and walk? (What do you mean ‘gross misrepresentation of what happened’?)

This year, they did indeed climb it twice. Wout van Aert, fresh from having surrendered second place and almost half an hour on the climb to Tignes at the end of last week, was a worthy stage winner after spending the day in the break. There were also a couple of developments back in the yellow jersey group.

The stage finished after the descent and not at the summit. Unfortunately for him, second-placed Ben O’Connor lost touch with 10km to go to the top. He lost 3m30s and slid down to fifth. Despite hanging with the best since, it’s unlikely he’ll gain time on them again.

It was Team Ineos who had been driving the pace on the climb – only when their penultimate rider was done and dusted, Richard Carapaz didn’t attack, as everyone expected him to. Instead, after a short distance where the remaining few all rode together, it was Jonas Vingegaard – the new Jumbo-Visma leader following Primoz Roglic’s abandonment – who did so.

Tadej Pogacar followed him, obviously, and so did Carapaz, while Rigoberto Uran tried to inch his way across the gap more gradually.

But then something weird happened. Suddenly Pogacar couldn’t stay with Vingegaard.

The Dane opened up a 40s gap by the summit, but then lost it all again on the descent as Pogacar, Carapaz and Uran co-operated. (Co-operation helps. Remember the first rule of bike racing.)

It was still a very striking development though.

The Pyrenees

Stage 12 looked set to be a sprint day, but the “Will Cav draw level with Merckx?” questions rapidly receded when it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen with everyone still knackered from the Ventoux. Instead, a few plucky/foolhardy souls went in the break and everyone else sort of went, “Okay, those guys can be the race today and we’ll all just ride in together at a sensible speed.”

As I mentioned earlier, Cavendish successfully did his thing the day after and then it was into the Pyrenees for the weekend (where the sprinter’s goal is simply to survive ahead of two more opportunities next week).

On Saturday, Stage 14 saw Guillaume Martin vault up the general classification after getting into the break. He gained 5m30s and moved from ninth to second.

This gave the French a very exciting 24 hours until he then lost four minutes the very next day, sliding right back down to ninth as a consequence. The moral of the story is that every effort has a consequence.

Elsewhere, the effort-making was very even. Pogacar, Vingegaard, Carapaz and Uran all finished in the same group and I think all of them attacked at one point or another. These were the piffly attacks you tend to see when no-one’s got much left though.

Everyone’s tired and clinging on and then after a bit someone or other thinks: “We’re all tired and clinging on. Maybe *I’m* the freshest. Maybe I should try something.” And then they raise the pace by about 0.5km/h.

After everyone’s grudgingly willed themselves to respond, someone else thinks: “That wasn’t much of an attack. Maybe *I’m* the freshest. Maybe I should try something…”

And so on.

The end result was that the time gaps between Pogacar, Uran, Vingegaard and Carapaz at the end of the week were exactly the same as they were at the start of the week.

What’s next?

The mountains of Andorra on Tuesday, then two big summit finishes on Wednesday and Thursday.

That’s the climax really because the race then peters out a bit with sprint days on Friday and Sunday sandwiching Saturday’s flat 30km time trial.

I’ll be back with my final week recap on the Monday. Please sign up for the NEW email – the one that started last month – if you haven’t yet moved over to it.

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