SAINT-VULBAS, France — Mark Cavendish wrote a new chapter of Tour de France history in what is expected to be his last appearance at cycling’s biggest race.

The veteran Isle of Man sprinter broke Eddy Merckx’s long-standing record for most career Tour de France stage wins with his 35th victory on Wednesday.

The 39-year-old Cavendish sprinted for the win in the fifth stage of the Tour, pulling away some 100 meters from the line despite being bunched in. He crossed the line ahead of Jasper Philipsen and then jumped into the arms of a teammate.

Two-time champion Tadej Pogacar retained the race leader’s yellow jersey, but the day belonged to Cavendish.

He equalled Merckx’s mark of 34 wins during the 2021 Tour and went close to No. 35 in the seventh stage last year when he was narrowly beaten to the line by Philipsen. He then crashed a day later and broke his right collarbone.

Merckx, the Belgian considered the most dominant rider in cycling history, won his 34 individual stages at the Tour from 1969-75.

With his 2023 race ending early, Cavendish decided to put off retirement for a year and came back to try again. His decision to give it one more shot paid off.

“I just wanted to get the run-in to do it. I’m a little bit in disbelief. Astana put a big gamble on this year to make sure we’re good at the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “We’ve done it.”

Finally, Cavendish made cycling history — 16 years after winning his first Tour stage back in 2008.

Other riders were happy for Cavendish, with several stopping to speak with or hug him after the 177.4-kilometer (110-mile) leg from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Saint-Vulbas

Merckx amassed his wins in the 1960s and 70s, an era during which his domination was such that he earned the nickname “The Cannibal.” Unlike Merckx, who won a record five Tours, Cavendish, who specializes in the sprints, has never won the overall title.

But Cavendish’s speed, promise and longevity among his fellow sprinters have no equal at the Tour.

Cavendish won the Tour de France best sprinter’s green jersey twice. He also has won stages at all three Grand Tours — Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Spanish Vuelta — and became a world champion in 2011.

Cavendish joined Astana after his contract with Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl expired and he was overlooked for the 2022 edition of the Tour.

Cavendish had faced a difficult opening three stages of the Tour. During the first stage, he appeared to struggle with stomach and heat issues.

But that hadn’t damaged his confidence.

“I know how it works, my trainer and everyone around me knows how it is. If everybody knew how it was, everyone would be a bike rider and my job would be a lot harder,” Cavendish said Wednesday. “I’ve done 15 Tours de France. I don’t like to have bad days, I don’t like to suffer but I know it’s just in the head and to push through it.”