British sprinter Mark Cavendish celebrates his record-breaking 35th Tour de France stage win, breaking the record set by Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, in the fifth stage of the 177.4-kilometer (110.2-mile) Tour de France cycling race, starting in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and finishing in Saint-Vulbas, France, Wednesday, July 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

SAINT-VULBAS, France (AP) — Mark Cavendish wrote a new chapter in Tour de France history in what will likely be his last appearance in cycling’s biggest race.

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

Cavendish, 39, sprinted to victory in the fifth stage of the Tour de France, breaking away about 100 metres from the finish line despite being in the group. He crossed the line ahead of Jasper Philipsen and then celebrated with his teammates.

Norwegian Alexander Kristoff, who had previously had an accident, finished third. They both had the same time of 4 hours, 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Sixteen years after his first Tour stage win, Cavendish has spoken of his continued hunger for victory.

“I always needed to win one more time, one more time,” said Cavendish, who was joined on the podium by his children. “It takes a lot of work every year to get there. I have amazing people around me.”

Two-time champion Tadej Pogacar narrowly avoided a crash and finished squeezed into the main group in 35th place. While Pogacar retained the race leader’s yellow jersey, the day belonged to Cavendish.

He equaled Merckx’s tally of 34 wins on the 2021 Tour and came close to 35th on stage seven last year when he was narrowly beaten by Philipsen. A day later, he crashed and broke his right collarbone.

Merckx, a Belgian considered the most dominant cyclist in cycling history, won 34 Tour stages between 1969 and 1975.

Cavendish’s decision to give himself another chance paid off.

“I just wanted the opportunity to do it. I’m a bit of a skeptic. Astana took a big risk this year to make sure we were good at the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “We did it.”

With his 2023 race ending prematurely, Cavendish decided to delay his retirement for a year and return to try again.

Cavendish finally made cycling history by winning his first stage of the Tour de France in 2008.

Fellow cyclists celebrated Cavendish’s success, with several stopping to chat or hug him along the 177.4-kilometre (110-mile) route from Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Saint-Vulbas

Merckx accumulated his victories in an era in which his dominance was so great that he earned the nickname “The Cannibal.” Unlike Merckx, one of only four riders to win the Tour five times, Cavendish never won the overall title or came close to it.

But Cavendish is unmatched among other Tour de France sprinters.

He has twice won the green jersey of the Tour de France’s best sprinter. He has also won stages of all three Grand Tours – the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta – and was world champion in 2011.

Cavendish joined Astana after his contract with Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl expired and was not included in the squad for the 2022 tour.

Cavendish had a difficult start to the Tour, appearing to struggle with stomach problems and the heat during the first stage.

“I know how it works, my coach and everyone around me knows how it is,” Cavendish said. “I’ve done 15 Tours de France. I don’t like having bad days, I don’t like suffering, but I know it’s in your head and you have to wait it out.”

Pogacar, meanwhile, will have to safely navigate another flat stage on Thursday, having regained the leader’s jersey on Tuesday with a brilliant attack at the top of the race’s first big mountain pass.

On Wednesday he was just glad he had avoided an accident.

“We were in a group and then something just appeared out of nowhere in the middle. The guys in front of me braked and we touched our wheels a little bit, but luckily I managed to get away,” he said. “I reacted instinctively and I was very lucky.”

The 25-year-old Slovenian leads the general classification by 45 seconds over Tour debutant Remco Evenepoel, the 2022 Vuelta and world champion. Pogacar is 50 seconds ahead of two-time defending champion Jonas Vingegaard, a Danish cyclist who was seriously injured in a high-speed crash during the Tour of Basque Country in early April.

Pogacar is aiming for a rare Giro-Tour double and his third Tour title after victories in 2020 and 2021. The last rider to win the Giro and Tour in the same year was the late Marco Pantani in 1998.

On Wednesday’s stage, Clement Russo and Matteo Vercher formed an escape after covering 35 kilometres (22 miles).

Given that the French riders had won the first two stages thanks to Romain Bardet and Kevin Vauquelin, this may have motivated them. Due to rain, Russo and Vercher were caught with 36 kilometres (22 miles) to go.

Thursday’s stage 6 is again suitable for sprinters, taking in the vineyards to Dijon on mostly flat terrain for around 100 miles. The first individual time trial will take place on Friday.

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