DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) – Briton Mark Cavendish says he will need some luck if he is to edge closer to Eddy Merckx’s all-time stage wins record when the Tour de France begins in Duesseldorf on Saturday.
The 32-year-old Team Dimension Data rider has bounced back from having a “zero percent” chance of making the start line because of a bout of glandular fever to targeting at least one stage win over the next three weeks.
He needs four to draw level with the 34 of Merckx.
“I’m not in ideal condition but the good thing about being a sprinter is that you can win on luck,” Cavendish told reporters at a news conference on Friday.
“You get the right wheel, you get the right run and there is a chance you can win. So it was worth coming with that chance.
“This year I would be happy to win one stage, but it wouldn’t be a failure if I don’t.”
Isle of Man-born Cavendish, known as the Manx Missile, enjoyed a superb 2016, winning four stages on the Tour de France and finally securing an Olympic medal when he finished runner-up behind Italy’s Elia Viviani in the omnium track event.
His prospects of increasing his Tour tally looked bleak, however, when he struggled to recover from illness.
“A few weeks ago there was a zero percent chance of making it and I had to race to see if I could put myself forward,” Cavendish said. “But I started to feel better every day and I’m happy the team selected me.”
While he may not be starting at full gas, Cavendish is confident he will grow stronger during the 21-stage race which begins with a time trial along the banks of the majestic River Rhine on Saturday.
“I normally get stronger as it goes on, that’s where my strength has been,” Cavendish said. “Other sprinters get fatigued on Grand Tours but I’ve always seemed to get better and that’s something I’ve always taken advantage of.”
While Merckx’s record is tantalisingly close, Cavendish said it was only after last year that it became a realistic target.
“One Tour de France stage win usually makes a career let alone winning a stage every year,” he said.
Doug Ryder, manager of the African-based team that supports the Qhubeka charity that has provided thousands of bicycles for Africans, said Cavendish was riding for two goals.
“If Mark goes beyond 34 it would be one of the greatest achievements in sport,” Ryder, told Reuters. “And, selfishly it would be amazing for us because we could help so many more people though Qhubeka.
“Mark knows that and cares deeply about it.”
Cavendish added: “If I’m only good enough to win one more then so be it. But if we put 5,000 more children in Africa on bikes that’s the biggest victory.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)