Comment: This is Mark Cavendish at his very best
Resurgent Cavendish proves himself once again as the fastest sprinter in the Tour de France
by George Scott
In truth, we ran out of superlatives to describe Mark Cavendish years ago - but the 2016 Tour de France has seen journalists digging deep in the thesaurus once again. This is Cavendish at his very best.
In winning stage six on Thursday - his third triumph of 2016 and 29th since 2008 - Cavendish moved clear of Bernard Hinault in the list of all-time victories. Now only the great Eddy Merckx, who accumulated 34 wins during his five overall victories, stands clear of Cavendish.
As the Tour's greatest ever sprinter, Cavendish has earned his right to be mentioned alongside both Merckx and Hinault, the two greats of Tour de France history, and has blazed a trail as a fast man.
Life at the top for a Tour de France sprinter is often short. The fast twitch muscle fibres of a sprinter often burn twice as bright but half as long and wins are accumulated in bursts before that flame is extinguished.
Only Frenchman André Darrigade, with 22 victories, comes close to matching Cavendish's win record, but Darrigade, whose finished 16th overall on three occasions, was far more than a sprinter and a rider who "destroyed the image of sprinters who just sit on wheels", according to contemporary Raphaël Géminiani. Below Darrigade, the closest pure sprinters to Cavendish are Mario Cipollini, Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel, with 12 wins apiece.
Having won 'only' one stage in the past two editions of the Tour, Cavendish arrived at the 2016 race written off in many quarters, not least because of the amount of time he has spent on the track to prepare for this summer's Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
But Cavendish has once again proved himself not only as the fastest sprinter in the peloton, but the most intelligent, and the Manxman's stage six victory exemplified not only the speed of his legs, but also his mind.
Cavendish's Dimension Data team may not have the depth of its WorldTour rivals but in Mark Renshaw, Bernard Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen, Cavendish has three of the strongest lead-out men in the business - a crack squad reunited from the all-conquering HTC-Highroad team.
But Cavendish has an additional tool in his armoury - his supreme bike-handling skills and an ability to surf the wheels in the absence of a leadout; instead taking advantage of his rival riders. This isn't the Cavendish of HTC-Highroad, delivered to the line as a near formality, but a mature, versatile sprinter. Cavendish was almost invisible on the run-in to Montauban on Thursday, hidden behind the hulking frame of Marcel Kittel, but when he emerged from the German's wheel and engaged his rival in a drag race to the line, there was only one winner.
This is the battle we've been waiting two years for, after Cavendish crashed out of the 2014 race on the opening stage in Harrogate and Kittel missed last year's Tour through illness. While Cavendish had never won a head-to-head sprint with Kittel going into the Tour, he's undoubtedly had the upper hand since the race departed Mont-Saint-Michel.
This is perhaps the strongest crop of sprinters the Tour has ever seen but Cavendish and Kittel are the standout riders. Kittel, of course, was victorious himself on stage four and will have several chances to regain the initiative once the race leaves the Pyrenees and continues its journey to Paris.
Should Cavendish continue all the way to Paris - and given his form and desire to succeed not only for his team but also its charitable partner, Qhubeka, it's impossible to see that not happening - the French capital is only the midway point for Cavendish. He will then head to Rio de Janeiro in a bid win an Olympic medal in the omnium and effectively complete his palmares, having achieved his penultimate career goal in pulling on the yellow jersey on stage one.
The Olympics have given Cavendish a renewed focus. Back in January, he launched a triple-pronged plan of attack for 2016: to wear the maillot jaune, win an Olympic medal and win the world road race title for a second time in October. Since then, Cavendish has "not wasted a single day" and has, so far, reaped the rewards of that revitalised hunger.
Those goals, even by Cavendish's admission, were ambitious - "they are too big targets to say if I don’t win them it’s a failure," he said. At the outset, an omnium medal looked an outside bet for Cavendish, and the odds didn't improve after a sixth place finish at the World Championships in March, but given his propensity for proving doubters wrong, and as a rider who has never let the prospect of failure obscure his vision for success, the Tour de France may well only be the beginning.