Cavendish is already the most successful sprinter in the history of the Tour, and needs four more stage wins to match the 34 achieved by Merckx.
But as he arrives in France for the start of his 12th Tour, Cavendish recognises he is no longer the rider that won 20 stages in the space of four years between 2008 and 2011.
That younger, more edgy Cavendish is gone.
“I’m 33 with four kids at home,” he said.
But also gone is the rider who won four stages in 2016 before leaving the Tour early to focus on the Rio Olympics.
That version of Cavendish disappeared last summer, when he suffered a broken shoulder in a stage-four crash with world champion Peter Sagan, who was controversially disqualified. The shoulder was surgically repaired, but will never be fully fixed.
“I can’t really put the weight on it to get so far over the handlebars as I did, I can’t pull on the handlebars like I did,” Cavendish said.
“I’m not the first person to have an injury. You try and deal with it and I’ll make sure I’m stronger elsewhere in my body.”
That crash in Vittel has been part of a catalogue of setbacks for Cavendish over the past 18 months, from the Epstein-Barr virus that almost prevented him starting the Tour at all last year, to his somersault over a central reservation in Milan-Sanremo earlier this year or his farcical crash at the Abu Dhabi Tour, caused by the automated brakes on an officials’ car.
There have been so many tumbles that Cavendish felt moved to defend his bike handling.
“Two crashes in a year is not too bad,” he said, perhaps discounting the one caused by a mechanical failure at Tirreno-Adriatico. “Some guys crash more than that in a race, but that’s something that the mainstream press don’t really dwell on.”
Saturday’s opening stage from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte offers the prospect – if crosswinds do not interfere on the Vendee coastline – of a sprint finish, and with it the chance for a sprinter to don the yellow jersey.
That is something Cavendish did for the only time in his career to date two years ago with victory at Utah Beach in Normandy, but the opportunity of a repeat will not change his approach this weekend.
“We’ll try our best for sure, obviously it’s always nice when a sprinter gets an opportunity to get the yellow jersey,” he said. “But the yellow jersey won’t change our approach. It’s a stage and we’ll try to win that stage.”
Yellow is a target already ticked off for Cavendish – now it is all about catching Merckx.
“In terms of races I can physically win, I’ve pretty much done everything” he said. “(Merckx) is really the only target I have left. It seems so close yet it is a big distance away.
“I always say one stage makes a rider’s career, let alone multiple stages or multiple stages in multiple years. It’s harder than it looks but fortunately I’m in a place with Team Dimension Data where they trust I’ll do everything I can to do it and they support me, and put a team behind me to do it.
“If it’s not this year so be it, but I’ll try to get it before the end of my career, that’s for sure.”
Froome is targeting a record-equalling fifth Tour title this month, but to get it he will need to complete a rare Giro d’Italia-Tour double and make it four Grand Tour wins in a row having also won La Vuelta last year.
Porte helped Froome to Tour victories in 2013 and 2015 before leaving Team Sky to join BMC in pursuit of his own Grand Tour ambitions, but is yet to better his old friend and is looking for a helping hand in France.
“It was nice to watch him in the Giro, and I hope he’s tired” the Tasmanian said.
“I hope that he is tired. Guys like Vincenzo (Nibali) and Nairo (Quintana) are never going to give him an easy day. A lot can happen out on the road and if he does have a bad day quite a few guys are ready to end his winning streak.”
Froome is clear to race in the Tour after the UCI ended its anti-doping investigation into an adverse analytical finding he returned for Salbutamol at La Vuelta and Tour organisers subsequently dropped their attempts to bar him from the event.
As Salbutamol is a specified substance, Froome’s case should have been dealt with in private unless a anti-doping case was proven, but the story was leaked in December.
Asked his opinion on the matter, Porte said: “He’s been cleared. It was never really for us, it’s above us, it doesn’t really matter what our opinion is. It’s just a shame that once again cycling airs its dirty laundry in public.
“Whether you like Chris or not, he had a right to have his privacy respected. That’s more the story, where the leak has come from.”
Porte arrives at the Tour on the back of his victory in the Tour de Suisse last month, but his credentials as a one-week stage racer are not in question.
The 33-year-old is yet to make the podium of a Grand Tour with a litany of illnesses, injury and pure bad luck derailing his tilts at the Giro and Tour titles over the past three years.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “We have a super team this year. The first nine stages are pretty tricky but I think we have the horsepower to get me through those. We’ve had a great season so far and I’m supermotivated for this Tour.”
Sky on Wednesday released data from Froome’s decisive win on stage 19 of the Giro, when he used a stunning 80km breakaway launched on the Colle delle Finestre to overturn a three-minute deficit to set up overall victory.
“I think they put that out there and hope guys underfuel,” he said. “I don’t really take much into it. Everyone knows what they’re doing. We’re all professional athletes and we know how to fuel. We don’t need to read online what Sky say they’re doing. We’ve been doing this long enough to know how to eat.”
Dan Martin will target the general classification at the Tour de France but his UAE Team Emirates squad will have split ambitions with sprinter Alexander Kristoff also named in the squad.
Irishman Martin is looking to build on his 2017 performance when he finished sixth in the Tour despite racing for almost two weeks with two broken vertebrae in his back after a crash on stage nine.
Ahead of the start of Saturday’s three-week long race, we take a look at the seven UAE Team Emirates riders who will be on the start line at Noirmoutier-en-l’Île.
The Irishman comes into the La Grande Boucle off the back of a fourth place finish at the Criterium du Dauphine last month. Managed a sixth place finish at the Tour last year and should at least match that this time, depending on how dominant Chris Froome and Richie Porte are on the roads of France.
The Norwegian may not be the same maestro from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but he is still far from a fading force. Winning the Eschborn-Frankfurt and GP du canton d’Argovie in recent months shows there is fight and pace still in him.
The Colombian may have failed to scale the same heights of 2016 when he finished ninth in the Giro d’Italia, but his qualities as a rider are unquestionable. Produced one of the most inspiring rides of the Tour de France last year, finishing second on stage 18 behind Warren Barguil, earning the red bib for his efforts as the most aggressive rider. UAE’s best climber.
The Italian produced a season-best performance at the Giro when he finished fifth on stage 18. Crossed the line in 18th at Paris Roubaix and 25th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite to underline his status as a marquee sprinter. His experience and general race-craft on the flat stages will be crucial to helping Kristoff win a maiden stage at the Tour.
Another rider who is starting to find his rhythm at the right time, with a top-10 finish at the Tour of California in May. His superb stage win at the Tour of Croatia last year was among his standout moments with the team, outsprinting Vincenzo Nibali at the Biokovo mountain finish.
The youngster has proven he can compete at the highest level, with top-15 finishes at the GC at Hammer Stavanger and Hammer Sportzone Limburg. In his first Tour de France, the Italian will be hoping to play a pivotal role in putting Martin in the best position possible to challenge Froome and Co.
The Italian produced a stunning display at the Volta a Catalunya in March to secure two top-five finishes. After a poor display at the Tour de Suisse, Ferrari will be bidding to re-discover his form around the rolling hills of France.
An experienced rider, the Australian is a domestique with the team and supports Martin and Kristoff in their battle for victory. In his first season with the UAE outfit, Sutherland comes into the race on the back of a season-best 20th place finish on stage three of the Criterium du Dauphine.