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Mark Cavendish delayed his retirement to pursue the outright record for Tour de France stage wins

Cavendish breaks Tour de France stage record

Mark Cavendish broke the Tour de France stage wins record as he took his 35th victory in cycling's greatest race to surpass the legendary Eddy Merckx with a sensational sprint finish in Saint Vulbas.

Contesting what is expected to be his final Tour, the 39-year-old burst clear in a dramatic finale to stage five and raised his arms in celebration as he crossed the line victorious, before being embraced by his team.

The historic achievement comes one year after Cavendish suffered a race-ending crash on stage eight, one day after being pipped to a record-breaking victory by Jasper Philipsen.

"You sprint and go as hard as you can until you get to the finish and maybe your life changes if you cross that line first, maybe it doesn't if you don't. That is the nature of this race and what makes it so beautiful," Cavendish told ITV.

Cavendish had jointly held the record for most Tour stage wins with Belgian Merckx since winning his 34th stage in 2021.

Last year was supposed to be his 14th and final Tour, but the dream of ending his career with the outright Tour stage record motivated him to make another comeback.

Delaying his retirement plans by one more year, Cavendish, already regarded as the best sprinter of all time, has earned the prize he desperately sought.

The Briton had feared his career could be over and battles with illness, injuries and depression contributed to him not winning once during 2019 and 2020.

But he returned to the Belgian Quick Step team in 2021 to win four stages in a remarkable comeback at that year's Tour.

Left out of the 2022 Tour and seemingly out of contract at the end of that year, he joined Astana Qazaqstan at the last minute for 2023.

With his race abruptly ended after he sustained a broken collarbone in a crash when on the verge of history last year, the Manx Missile decided he could not allow his career to end there.

And so, in Saint Vulbas, with a trademark dash to the line, Cavendish achieved the record-breaking moment that has long felt his destiny.

Tour race director Christian Prudhomme said: "Everyone has a smile today - even Eddy Merckx.

"Everybody thought it was too late but him. It is a wonderful story. He is the yellow jersey of the sprinters."

After Tuesday's ascent of the iconic Col du Galibier, stage five offered the contenders for the overall race respite as they rode the relatively flat 177.4 km route from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Saint Vulbas.

And it offered Cavendish his latest shot at history - later revealing this was the stage he and his Astana Qazaqstan team had been "specifically" preparing for.

Groupama-FDJ rider Clement Russo and Matteo Vercher of Total Energies were the only riders to attempt a move on stage five, but their four-and-a-half-minute advantage was quickly reduced as the sprint teams took charge in the peloton.

There was a nervous moment for race leader Tadej Pogacar, who narrowly escaped disaster by swerving a traffic island at the last minute, as several riders suffered crashes but nobody was seriously injured.

Slovenia's Pogacar, 25, retained the leader's yellow jersey which he reclaimed by taking victory on stage four, 45 seconds ahead of Remco Evenepoel in the General Classification standings with defending champion Jonas Vingegaard five seconds further adrift.

Once the GC teams had delivered their leaders into the safety of the final few kilometres, the frantic push to the finish line unfolded and Astana Qazaqstan always appeared well-organised before Cavendish made his historic move.

With his 165th career victory, achieved fittingly as he held his nerve and picked his moment, Cavendish is now immortalised in the race's history as the Tour's greatest ever stage winner - sixteen years after he opened his record-breaking Tour de France love affair on the fifth stage of the 2008 race.

Reacting to Cavendish's historic win, former team-mate and good friend Geraint Thomas said: "It's unbelievable, I am super happy for him. It is great he has the record alone and is not sharing it with anyone.

"I said, 'Mate, if you win this stage just drop your bike and walk away' - but he was like, 'If I win the first one, I'll want to win more'. So he’s definitely going to hang around, isn't he."

Stage six on Thursday provides the sprinters with another opportunity on a flat 163.5km route from Macon to Dijon, which concludes with a 800m-straight finish.

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