Enjoy this chapter from the book!
The green jersey was now slipping further and further away. Paris, fortunately, was getting closer. Only four more days. The first was a time trial around Lake Annecy—what ought to have been as good as a rest day had I not panicked on hearing the earlier time splits and needlessly ridden the second half full gas. For a moment, I’d feared I was going to miss the time limit. I’d also wasted several seconds on the single uphill section to stop pedaling completely and glare at a British fan whose idea of cheering on a countryman was telling me, “Cavendish, get up off your fat arse!”
My thoughts were now fixed on what was likely to be my last remaining chance of a stage win—every sprinter’s theater of dreams, the Champs-Élysées in Paris. That night in Annecy, though, the manager of the Saxo Bank team, Bjarne Riis, strolled across the hotel dining room bearing an expected gift: Leaning over the table where Brian Holm and I were sitting, he told me the 787-meter Col d’Escrinet, 16 kilometers from the end of the following day’s nineteenth stage to Aubenas, needn’t stop me winning that one either. “It’s steep at the bottom, but after that you can settle into a rhythm,” Riis told me with a wink.
A Eurosport documentary later showed Johan Bruyneel in the Astana team bus the following morning telling his men, “Cavendish will get dropped on the climb.” Meanwhile, in our bus, I’d been promising my teammates that I could make it with their help, just like I’d made it over the Cipressa and Poggio at Milan–San Remo. That was exactly what ended up happening. The whole stage, up to the bottom of the climb, was blistering, with guys even getting dropped on the flat. But the Escrinet itself was exactly how Riis had described it—steep for 3 or 4 kilometers, then more gradual for 10. Shielded by my teammates, I thought back to San Remo and how, on the Cipressa, the TV cameras had lingered next to me, filming close-ups of my face. As they did the same now, I was careful to show none of the signs of strain that might excite rival directeurs sportifs watching monitors in their cars. As long as I looked comfortable, they’d know there was no point in upping the pace.
The reigning world champion, Alessandro Ballan, crossed the summit with the Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo. A few seconds later, at the front of the main bunch, I started the descent. The kilometers ticked by, and we still didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally, as the road kicked up toward the finish with 1 kilometer to go, George vacuumed them up. Now I only had Tony Martin, who was going to have to pull off the lead-out of the century, from a kilometer out, all uphill. It was going to take something special—and Tony is a special young rider. From 200 meters to go, when his bionic legs finally started chopping, all I had to do was the easy bit and outsprint Gerald Ciolek to take what was maybe my unlikeliest Tour stage win to date, given the nature of the route.
Five wins. And counting. The Belgian Freddy Maertens was the last man to win six, in 1981. I now had forty-eight hours to wait for my chance to join him. On top of a Mont Ventoux that must have lost 50 meters in altitude that day, such was the weight of the crowd on the slopes, I warmed up by playfully beating Thor in a sprint for 104th place. Mathematically, I could still win the green jersey, but only if Thor had some kind of problem or an accident on the Champs-Élysées. Our sprint on the Ventoux was part peace offering, part crowd-pleaser, part private joke at the expense of the media. “Let’s sprint just to confuse them. They think we hate each other,” I’d whispered to Thor in sight of the summit.
The start of the twenty-first and final stage in Montereau Fault–Yonne wasn’t so amusing. In fact, it was shit, literally: I stood in some dog dirt on the way to the team bus. But I was too zoned in for that or anything else to bother me. I’d told our team press officer, Kristy, not to make me do any interviews. I was also dressed head-to-toe in brand-new kit. While, as per tradition, the other 155 riders left in the field joked and sipped from champagne glasses until we reached the first of eight laps of the Champs-Élysées, I thought only of the last of those laps—the one I intended to complete with my arms aloft.
Nothing about the Champs failed to exceed my expectations. The noise, the color, the view—the goosebumps when it all hit me. Incredible. As we knew they would, the second we hit the Champs, the attacks started, but we were in total control, from the first lap to the last. As we rounded the bend in front of the Arc de Triomphe for the final time, whole teams were strung out parallel to our train, trying to swamp us. “Stay together! Stay together!” I screamed—and we did. All except Michael Rogers, who’d punctured on the penultimate lap, leaving us one man short.
Oh, the irony—it’d be Garmin that did Mick’s work for him and for us, taking it on around the last, sweeping, left-hand bend. In every sprint until then, we’d all kept something in reserve, except me on Stage 2, but now we didn’t need to hold anything back. Dave Millar took us under the kilometer-to-go flag, then George Hincapie smashed past and onto the front. Boom—from the overhead cameras, it looked as though a bomb had dropped into the middle of the peloton.
Eight hundred meters to go. Seven hundred. George pulls off. Renshaw takes over. Into the Place de la Concorde. Into the last right-hand bend, too fast, way too fast, only I’m on Mark Renshaw’s wheel, and if there’s one man skillful enough to get around that bend, at that speed, it’s Mark Renshaw. Still, I wince. Wait for the impact with the barriers. Nothing. Relief.
Into the straight. Five hundred meters. Mark kicks. Four hundred, 300. I could go, but Mark’s still accelerating. I wait until 250, maybe 200, and he launches me. A laser-guided missile. Giving it everything. And we leave everyone behind—so much so that, had I known, I’d have sat up and let Mark come through for the win.
Instead I screamed as I crossed the line and threw up my arms. Behind me, Mark did the same. Contador may have won the Tour, Hushovd may have beaten me to the green jersey by ten points and by default, but the performance the whole of Paris would remember had come from my team.
The moment was unforgettable. The moment was ours.