Mark Cavendish's incredible return to the Tour de France continued as he matched Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage triumphs.

Cavendish, who won his first stage at the most famous of the grand tours back in 2008, has been one of the great success stories of this year's edition.

And, with two flat runs of the race to spare, the Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider scooped his fourth stage win of 2021 to equal Merckx's haul.

The Belgian great – a five-time Tour de France winner – set the record between 1969 and 1975.

Cavendish's record-equalling success came in Carcassonne at the culmination of stage 13's 220km route, with his team-mates executing a perfect lead-out in the final 1,500m.

Having established himself at the front of the peloton, Cavendish had to change his bike with around 35km to go, yet rallied back to be in place for the final push.

It came courtesy of Michael Morkov, who timed his burst to perfection, giving Cavendish the opportunity to sprint through the gap and clinch his record-equalling win in a photo finish, also becoming the first rider to win four stages of Le Tour at the age of 36 in the process.

Cavendish could yet surpass the record, with two more sprints to come in the final week. He has previously won a record four times on the Champs-Elysees finale in Paris.

In the general classification standings, Tadej Pogacar's controlled ride kept him in command of the yellow jersey.

There was drama further back in the stage as a crash with around 55km remaining resulted in three abandonments, including former Vuelta e Espana winner Simon Yates of Team BikeExchange.

IT'S LIKE MY FIRST ONE

Cavendish's career at the top level seemed to be over. Indeed, he even hinted at retirement following a run of poor form and illness in 2020.

Yet the 2016 Olympic silver medalist has reaffirmed his place as one of the greats with this extraordinary comeback. 

"It's tiring. I can't even think about it, I'm so dead, 220km in that heat, that wind. I went deep there, so deep, the boys were incredible. I don't believe it," an exhausted Cavendish said.

"A lot of the day I didn't feel like it was going to happen. The guys were riding like they were – I was so on the limit, you saw at the end – slightly uphill. I was lucky the lads just played it calm, I lost a little bit with about five km to go, it got a bit slippy I thought I'd punctured, but everyone else was like "it's the road", but we had to take it easy, I just lost a bit.

Asked if he had realised what his win meant, Cavendish added: "It's just another win on the Tour de France, it's like my first one – I've won a stage at the Tour de France, that's what I dreamed of as a kid, it's what I dream of now and I work so hard for it.

"I just hope, we've seen such a growth in cycling since I've started racing here, if any one of my wins can inspire kids to ride the Tour de France when they grow up, that's what means the most to me."

STAGE RESULT

1. Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) 05:04:29
2. Michael Morkov (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) 
3. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) 
4. Ivan Garcia Conrtina (Movstar) 
5. Danny van Poppel (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) 

CLASSIFICATION STANDINGS

General Classification

1. Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) 52:27:12'
2. Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) +5:18
3. Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) +5:32

Points Classification

1. Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) 279
2. Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) 178
3. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) 171

King of the Mountains

1. Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) 50
2. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) 43
3. Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) 42

What's next?

The Tour heads into the Pyrenees over the weekend, with Saturday's 183.7km route taking the riders over five categorised climbs.