CARCASSONNE, France -- Mark Cavendish won a mass sprint Friday to equal cycling great Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France.
Taking part in cycling's biggest race for the first time since 2018, the 36-year-old Cavendish has been dominating the sprints this summer. The British rider posted his fourth stage win in this year's edition by winning Stage 13, which finished in the southern city of Carcassonne.
"I haven't realized it," he said when asked about the record. "It's still just another win on the Tour de France. It's like my first one. I've won a stage of the Tour de France. It's what I dreamed of as a kid and it's what I dream of now. I've worked so hard for it."
Cavendish secured a new contract with his former Deceuninck Quick Step team for the 2021 season after returning from a bout of depression and several seasons of struggles on and off the bike. But he was not expected to ride in the Tour and did not train specifically for the three-week race. He was a late call-up last month as a replacement for Sam Bennett, the best sprinter of last year's Tour.
Cavendish has never won the overall Tour de France. Merckx won it five times.
Known as "The Manx Missile'' as he comes from the Isle of Man, Cavendish jostled for position in the last two kilometers to stay on the wheel of lead-out man Michael Morkov. He looked trapped in traffic with 300 meters left but zigzagged to the front and comfortably won ahead of Morkov. Jasper Philipsen was third.
"I can't even think about [the record]. I'm afraid I'm so dead after 220 kilometers in that heat, that wind and that finale,'' Cavendish said. "I went deep, I went so deep there. The boys were incredible. I can't believe it. A lot of the day it didn't feel like it, but it had to happen because I had the guys riding like they were. I was so on the limit there.''
There was no significant change in the general classification as race leader Tadej Pogacar enjoyed a quiet day in the peloton. Pogacar kept his 5:18 lead over second-placed Rigoberto Uran, with Jonas Vingegaard in third, 5:33 off the pace.
The race animated immediately with a flurry of attacks in the early stages of the 220-kilometer trek in southern France. But Cavendish's teammates set a fast tempo at the front to prevent large group of riders from breaking away, determined to ensure a mass sprint in the end.
They responded to every dangerous move and relaxed only when a trio of riders formed, knowing that it would be impossible for them to beat the chase of the pack later in the day.
Omer Goldstein, Pierre Latour and Sean Bennett worked well together but were kept on a tight leash.
In the shadow of large plane trees scattered across the route through the Languedoc vineyards, the leading trio was reduced to a pair when Latour and Goldstein dropped Bennett. They were reined in with 50 kilometers left after a crash involving dozens of riders briefly split the peloton. British cyclist Simon Yates, the 2018 Spanish Vuelta champion, was among those who hit the ground and abandoned.
Frenchman Quentin Pacher then launched an ill-fated solo effort to build a lead of more than a minute before Deceuninck Quick Step riders dramatically sped up the pace to swallow him about 19 kilometers from the finish.