They tell me that Mark Cavendish achieves a top speed on his sprints of something like 74 kph, or 46 miles an hour. Some people, especially in my neighborhood, can’t go that fast in a car. This is why Cavendish wins stage after stage after stage; Stage 18 was his 4th this year and the 14th of his career.
To put that in perspective a little, Cavendish’s coach and mentor, Erik Zabel—a cycling legend in his own right—had 12 stage wins in a long and illustrious career. Cavendish is barely 25 years old and already has 14, maybe 15 if he takes the final stage in Paris as he did last year.
The record for most career stage wins is held by Eddy Merckx with 34, and you’d have to view Cavendish as a threat to this record, though Cavendish will never in a million years be the cyclist Merckx was. Merckx was a dominant all-around talent who won five Tours and might have won more if he hadn’t been punched in the kidney by a spectator. Cavendish is a specialist who struggles to get through the mountains without being eliminated; he currently sits 154th in the general classification, 3 hours and 49 minutes behind Alberto Contador. But in the last 200 meters or so that determine who is going to win a bunch sprint, Cavendish makes the other very fast professionals look like toddlers riding trikes. In Stage 18 he was without his leadout team but still shot out of the pack and won going away.
Contador still sits an agonizing 8 seconds in front of Andy Schleck, who was powerless to make any headway on a flat, straight stage. He did get to meet Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, who presumably were in France to promote that movie they made together. They also stood on the podium with Contador at his behest. Is it worth having to put up with Tom Cruise if you get to hang out with Cameron Diaz? That’s a personal decision, I guess.