The jostle for prime position will begin before Mark Cavendish rolls into Paris on Sunday.
By the time this re-commissioned Manx Missile attacks the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees, his race to be front and centre back home could be run.
‘We’re having a big party in Douglas, our capital,’ explains Dot Tilbury MBE, who helped run youth cycling on the Isle of Man when Cavendish first arrived in 1995 – and still does.
A big party awaits Mark Cavendish in Douglas regardless of the outcome in Paris on Sunday
‘There are going to be big screens, a big parade of bikes to the Villa Marina…. and a big celebration.’
Unfortunately, few foresaw Cavendish’s rebirth – and this date with destiny at 36. That includes some on the island where his tour de force began.
‘The trouble is… we’re a busy island,’ Tilbury continues. ‘There’s things going on all over the island, every weekend – fairs, sport, secret gardens, afternoon teas… people will already have their arrangements made in some cases.’
On Sunday, her village is having a field day. ‘That’s always well attended,’ she adds. ‘But we’re hoping for a good crowd down at the Villa Marina to watch Mark. I’m sure there will be.’
The weather is set fair; the forecast for Cavendish looks promising, too.
Remarkable to think that a month ago, the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider had not even glanced over the route of this year’s Tour de France. No need, it seemed. He hadn’t made the race since 2018. He hadn’t won a stage since 2016. And then injury to Sam Bennett opened the door and Cavendish’s slight frame smashed through it. Four weeks and four stage wins later, he stands on the brink of history.
The 36-year-old has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence at the Tour de France this year
Victory in Paris on Sunday will take him past Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage victories.
‘I can’t see anyone coming close to that for years,’ fellow Manxman and former team-mate Peter Kennaugh says.
‘(I would) retire on the podium… he won’t, because he can’t. Why? He loves riding his bike, that’s his identity, that’s who he is. And that’s all he needs.’
Just reaching this final stage speaks to Cavendish’s enduring resolve – over recent years, he has battled injury, depression and the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus.
‘How many people would have just said: enough is enough?’ Kennaugh continues. ‘There wasn’t even a win on the horizon, let alone in the Tour.’
Even these past few weeks, the 36-year-old has contended with the peculiar life of a sprinter – carried up the Alps and Pyrenees by his ‘wolfpack’ for the final few hundred metres of days like these.
Cavendish (fourth bike from left) rides with his team during the 19th stage of the tour
This closing sprint could cement Cavendish’s place among the country’s greatest ever athletes.
‘He’d be on the podium of British sporting excellence,’ British Cycling performance director Stephen Park says.
Tilbury goes further. ‘Obviously we’re partisan,’ she says, ‘but in terms of greatness, it’s a sort of Muhammad Ali moment.’
She still remembers Cavendish’s first stage win, back in 2008.
‘I was away with a group of kids from our cycling club, in Preston,’ she recalls. ‘I suppose gobsmacked is the word.’
Not surprised, though. Not then, not now.
When the Manxman equalled Merckx’s tally in Carcassonne, he said inspiring youngsters to ride the Tour would mean more than any personal accolade. He could land both.
Cavendish is on the verge of breaking Eddy Merckx’s record for most Tour stage wins ever
‘I just wonder how many kids next week will be racing their mates in the streets outside their house, between lampposts,’ says Park, who claims Cavendish’s success ‘epitomises our purpose’.
These days, Park continues, he is making new generations dream and motivating riders already on the British Cycling pathway. To think, at one point, some coaches ‘didn’t necessarily feel he had the engine to be a successful, endurance road rider.’
His legacy in Douglas was secure long ago. ‘In his heyday,’ Tilbury says, ‘we must have signed over 500 children that year. I reckon it was the biggest children’s cycling club in the world, let alone Britain.’
This year, there are still 400-odd on the books. Not bad for a ‘tiny little island with 85,000 people’.
‘There are children who I started with, they’re bringing children down now,’ Tilbury adds.
When Cavendish made the switch from BMX in 1995, he made few ripples.
‘We have loads of kids,’ Tilbury says. ‘So when they turn up, you don’t examine every one in detail.’
She continues: ‘I think the first race he was in, he was seventh. The next week he was third or fourth and then the next week he won.’
Cavendish juggled cycling with football, athletics, ballroom dancing and a job at Barclays Bank before choosing his racing line.
Kennaugh was with him on many team trips. Now he is covering Cav’s history tour as part of ITV’s live coverage.
Cavendish’s friends on the Isle of Man say that cycling is his ‘identity’ ahead of Sunday’s finale
‘You see him in interviews – it’s not awkward but it’s quite endearing. He was exactly the same on the boat trips going to compete as a 15 year old and I was nine… we’d be on the boat and his younger brother Andrew would have whatever Bluetooth speaker was about in those days. He’d be playing Eminem music and I just remember…’ He adopts an uncanny Cavendish impression. ‘Andy, would you turn that off! It’s got swear words!’
He had at least shed some of that boyish innocence when he arrived at British Cycling.
‘He was just some chav from the Isle of Man who wanted to be from Liverpool,’ Geraint Thomas recently joked. ‘With his gold Vauxhall Corsa, all supped up, it was terrible. He’s still like that.’
Cavendish once claimed younger brother Andrew would have outstripped him – if only ‘he had worked hard’.
But Kennaugh, his brother Tim, Mark Christian and Matthew Bostock are among those who have followed him towards the mainland – and the top of the sport.
What is in the water over there? Tilbury has a few theories.
Cavendish’s love for cycling takes him all the way to Paris where he hopes to make it 34 wins
‘We’re descended from the Vikings, so maybe…’ she tails off.
‘Kippers maybe? We’re famous for kippers.’ Ice cream, too.
Kennaugh has a more simple explanation: ‘In England you’d probably be the only one in your school, never mind your area who’s into cycling.
Because the Isle of Man is so condensed, you were able to be into cycling and hang out with those guys at the same time… you never had that sense of missing out on your childhood’. That makes it easier to stomach all the sacrifices.
Tilbury adds: ‘Word gets around… parents talk at school gates, “my kid’s going down to the cycling, anybody can go…” There are no stipulations as to what bike you have – as long as it has two brakes and two wheels with the tyres pumped up. And a safe crash hat. We go from there.’ Occasionally all the way to Paris.