MARSEILLE, France -- Mark Cavendish will never be the greatest Tour de France rider, because he will never win the race five times like Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Frenchman Bernard Hinault. Still, the sprinter with thighs like thick hams could outdo both those legends -- by winning more stages at cycling's premier race.
By Cavendish's warp-speed standards, his 24th stage win on Wednesday was a ride in the park. The teammates who led Cavendish to the finish, sucking him along in their wheels, building up his speed, were toiling like clockwork. Stamping on his pedals, head down, thighs pumping like pistons, Cavendish then whooshed off alone for the last 150 meters (yards), leaving everyone else in his wake.
Cavendish was carrying so much momentum and this win in Marseille, France's second-largest city, was so comfortable that he was able to sit up in the saddle and make a hand motion like cracking a whip as he crossed the line.
One more stage win will tie Cavendish with Andre Leducq, the Frenchman who got 25 stage wins in the 1920s and 1930s, putting him third on the all-time list. Beyond Leducq is Hinault, who notched up 28 wins in the 1970s and `80s. Merckx's monument is 34, won from 1969 to 1975. Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain also won five Tours, but didn't win as many stages as Hinault and Merckx. Anquetil won 16; Indurain got 12. All seven of Lance Armstrong's Tour wins were stripped for doping. This 100th Tour is the first since Armstrong's fall last year.
Cavendish says he isn't fixated on Hinault or Merckx's numbers. He notes that for many riders, winning just one stage -- let alone the 11 he needs to surpass Merckx -- is a career-defining feat.
"You have to show the Tour de France the respect it deserves," he said.
But then Cavendish isn't any other rider. Before this edition, he collected on average nearly five wins at every Tour since 2008. In 2009, he got six. He won the last four sprint finishes on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, where he is unbeaten since 2009. While Merckx's record is still a way off, Hinault and most certainly Leducq look within Cavendish's grasp.
"Obviously I aim to win multiple stages each year. But to set any goals, any number ... it does one of two things: It sets you up to fail for something or it puts like a mark on what you want to achieve and it can kind of stop you trying to move forward," he said.
Were Cavendish to overtake Hinault, it wouldn't mean he is a better overall rider than the famously bad-tempered "Badger," who was strong on every terrain. But in a sprint, Cavendish has no equal, at least in this generation.
Although Cavendish downplays the chase for stage-win milestones, he is certainly very aware of them. The Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, says that more than a year ago, at the Tour of Oman, he quietly tested Cavendish's knowledge of Tour de France history and was delighted when he rattled off the names of Andre Darrigade, who won 22 stages in the 1950s and `60s, as well as Leducq, Hinault, Merckx and their respective totals.
"He is aware of what does it take ... to become No. 1 on the list of most winning riders ever," confirmed Rolf Aldag, one of the managers of Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.
"He has a chance to make history," he said. "It's a goal, it's a target."
Cavendish would be the first to note that, unlike Merckx, he doesn't win alone. His teammates worked tirelessly to maneuver him into place in Marseille. They helped reel in breakaway riders who scooted off ahead and then delivered him like express mail to within sight of the line.
Omega's Italian rider, Matteo Trentin, surged to the front and pedalled as hard as he could up to and around the final left-hand bend, pulling Gert Steegmans and Cavendish behind him.
Exhausted, Trentin then made way for Steegmans, who led Cavendish at top speed to the signboard marking 150 meters to go. From there, the man known as the "Manx Missile," because he comes from the Isle of Man, did the rest.
"Perfect, man, perfect," Trentin said.
"The basic plan never changes," Aldag said. "The basic plan is always we believe he's the fastest sprinter and we do everything that needs to be done to try to make him win."
"I didn't do anything," Cavendish said. "Gert went with such speed that I could accelerate off his wheel and just carried on the speed he delivered me at."
Stage 6 on Thursday -- 176.5 kilometers (110 miles) from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier -- should also suit Cavendish, because it is flat. With his short, muscular frame, he doesn't like steep climbs.
Simon Gerrans of Australia will again wear the yellow jersey, after keeping the race lead on Wednesday's bumpy 228.5-kilometer (142-mile) trek from the beach resort of Cagnes-sur-Mer.