MARSEILLE (AFP) – Move over Tour de France legend Eddy Merckx, because Britain's Mark Cavendish is gunning for the absolute record of stage wins on the world's biggest bike race.
Cavendish, who switched to the Belgian Omega-Pharma team last year after realising his objectives were no longer compliant with the yellow jersey aims of Team Sky, took his record of Tour stage wins to 24 on Wednesday.
Now only 10 short of the 34 won by five-time race winner Merckx during the Belgian's reign, Cavendish says he has no intention of letting up as he inches steadily towards setting a new benchmark.
"I changed teams because I realised this race is everything for me in my career so I want to come here for the rest of my career, win as much as possible and show the race the repsect it deserves," said the Isle of Man rider after the 228.5 km fifth stage from Cagnes-sur-Mer to Marseille."
Cavendish finished over a bike's length ahead of former Sky teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen to claim his first win as the new British national champion.
Although the Manxman also has 15 stage wins from the Giro d'Italia, having added five wins to that tally last month, the Manxman says winning on the Tour is his priority.
"The Tour de France is the Tour de France, you have to show it the respect it deserves," added Cavendish, who spent some of Tuesday evening speaking with 22-time stage winner Andre Darrigade, who retired in 1966.
"One stage win (at the race) makes a rider's career, let alone one stage per year, so we have to be content to win when we can.
"Obviously I aim to win more stages each year but to set any goals, any number, it does one of two things: it sets you up to fail or it puts a mark on what you want to achieve and it can stop you moving forward after you've done that."
Only 28 years old, Cavendish has plenty of time to surpass Merckx's record, according to Sean Kelly, the Irishman who was a formidable sprinter in his day and is still considered one of the sport's greatest ever classics riders.
"How many will he win - that is the question," Kelly told AFP.
Kelly, who won seven editions of Paris-Nice consecutively, nine of the 'monument' one-day classics and the 1988 Tour of Spain, admits the sprinters in his era enjoyed as many opportunities on the Grand Tours as the fast men of the peloton do today.
But he added that the sprint 'trains' - composed of several riders who help increase the pace for their main sprinter in the closing kilometres, allowing him to finish off the job in the last few hundred metres - are a modern invention.
"No one had the sprint trains back in my day," added Kelly.
And he believes that any rider's career can change overnight if he is subject to the numerous crashes and incidents that can blight careers.
"Mark has been involved in bad crashes before and came back but it's true that a bad crash can change things a lot," added Kelly.
"But the way he is going now, Cavendish can go on for a long time."
Cavendish's stage wins on the race have come over six editions since his maiden win in 2008, including Wednesday's victory. If he overtakes Merckx, he would become the first Tour stage record holder not to have won the race.
Asked when he believes Cavendish would surpass Merckx, Kelly added: "If I knew when he would surpass Merckx, I would go straight to the bookies (bookmakers)."