It looked for a long time that Mark Cavendish wouldn't add to his tally of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France. He rode with a succession of teams without the pedigree of his former race-dominating squads, suffered illness and injury... he was even without a team for the 2021 season and had to go begging to Deceuninck-QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere.
He then got a private sponsor to pay his wage, fought his way back to race-winning form, through good fortune found a spot on the Tour team after the late withdrawal of Sam Bennett and then came home a winner of three stages (so far).
Now just one win away from the all-time wins record of Eddy Merckx at 34, the chance for Cavendish to take the record that has stood since 1975 looks very real.
“Don’t say the name,” Cavendish said with a half-smile, half groan in the middle of a question about Eddy Merckx's overall Tour de France record after his Stage 6 triumph. “I am not thinking about anything. I just won a stage in the Tour de France. That’s what people work their whole lives for. I’m very, very happy.
"If I win another 50 more, I’m good enough to win 50. If I’m good enough to never win again here, so be it, I’m not good enough to win here. It’s the Tour de France.”
Stages 12, 13, 19 and 21 look to be set for bunch sprint finishes, and given the dominance of Cavendish and the Deceuninck-QuickStep leadout, there appears to be every chance that the record is matched this year, with the potential to extend the tally.
Record holder Eddy Merckx, now 76 years old, welcomed the challenge to his all-time stage win mark and about the potential for Cavendish to be the one to accomplish the feat.
"If he comes closer, then he has earned it," says Merckx. "Of course they are all bunch sprints. I won 34 stages in all areas, including uphill. But it won't change anything, I won't start again.
"Cavendish is a fantastic and jovial boy. He is now in a team where he is revived. Being in a team with a good atmosphere and where the people hang out, you can always outdo yourself there."
Merckx rode his last Tour de France at 33, finishing fifth overall and not winning a stage, Cavendish at 36 has experienced a series of much more barren years since his last Tour de France win in 2016, a fact that hadn't passed Merckx's attention.
"To be honest, I no longer believed in his comeback," said Merckx. "Miracles can sometimes happen in cycling. I think that's such a miracle."
The Tour de France heads to iconic climb of Mont Ventoux for Stage 11, the 'Giant of Provence' to be climbed twice as the best climbers in the race look to fight it out for the stage and the general classification. Watch the race from 2030 AEST on SBS and SBS OnDemand with the SKODA Tour Tracker starting at 1950 AEST.