Mark Cavendish is still racing in fast forward

Mark Cavendish has his sights set on 35 career stage wins at the Tour de France. SEBASTIEN NOGIER/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The triangular red flag that signals the approach of the finish line looms in a larger sense these days for Mark Cavendish. More than 10 years at the top in one of the most exacting and dangerous sporting disciplines in the world have battered his body and carved a few creases into his face. The sprinter whose 2009 autobiography was titled "Boy Racer" is now a father of four himself.

And yet where others might see an athlete running out of road, Cavendish is accelerating toward what he views as an opening in the 2018 Tour de France. Nine possible sprinters' stages await, starting with Saturday's 201-kilometer opener from Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile to Fontnay-le-Comte that is likely to feature tricky crosswinds and culminates with a flat, fast finish.

"So long as I'm the best, I'll still do it,'' Cavendish told me, sitting in a Dimension Data team car after a Tour of California stage in May. "That's where the goal of getting 35 stage wins at the Tour came from. I've run out of goals. Really, I did a while ago.

"When you're a kid, the better you are at something, the more you do it. The more you do it, the better you get, the more you enjoy it. It's still like that now.''

The 33-year-old British superstar has 30 Tour stage wins, four short of Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, whose record run from 1969-75 long seemed unassailable. Merckx, an all-around rider in the days before the divide between climbers and sprinters widened to a chasm, also won the Tour itself five times.

"He wants to prove people wrong who have given up on him. I think the worst thing that could happen for him is if the whole world would be in love with him." Rolf Aldag, a director for the Dimension Data team

A compact, nimble, fearless fast-twitch phenomenon from the Isle of Man in the waters between Great Britain and Ireland, Cavendish was seemingly built for one purpose. He won 20 Tour stages in a four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011, protected and propelled by one of the strongest sprint "trains" ever assembled at the team known in various iterations as High Road, Columbia and HTC.

During and since that stretch, Cavendish was able to tick off other milestones one by one, earning national and world championships on the road and track, winning one-day classics, shorter stage races and stages at the other two grand tours, and finally achieving a long-held ambition by collecting his first Olympic medal, a silver in the omnium at Rio 2016.

Cavendish comes into the 2018 Tour de France with a Dimension Data team designed to serve him perhaps more than any squad he's had since the High Road days, including his longtime leadout man, Australia's Mark Renshaw. (Notably absent will be Cavendish's good friend and support rider Bernhard Eisel of Austria, who is still recovering from brain surgery for a subdural hematoma that developed after a crash.)

"Sprinters have a special kind of personality, especially Mark, where they want to see support,'' said Rolf Aldag, high performance director for the South African-based team. "He appreciates that and he also expects it, and he's earned the right to have those expectations.''

But Cavendish is also trying to rebound from perhaps the most challenging season-and-a-half of his career, in which he's had as many difficult crashes as wins.

He exited the 2017 Tour after a Stage 4 finishing-stretch entanglement with fellow marquee rider Peter Sagan of Slovakia in which Cavendish tried to shoot a gap along the barriers. He was unable to continue due to a broken shoulder blade, and Sagan was ejected from the race in a controversial decision.

The two were gracious to one another in the aftermath despite the high tensions between their teams and race officials, and have avoided inflating the drama since.

"All I'll say about it is no matter if you believe it was intentional or not, there was no way, at all, that I was in any way at fault with what happened with that crash,'' Cavendish said quietly back in May. "I'll always stick by that. Media's something you've got to deal with, and I've been doing it long enough to know how to do that.''

Cavendish's 2018 season has been dominated by tough spills: an in-race car-related incident in the Abu Dhabi Tour, another caused by mechanical failure in the Tirreno-Adriatico team time trial, and worst of all, a frightening, unavoidable collision with a traffic divider that catapulted him into the air and onto his back late in the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day monument.

"I don't crash that much,'' Cavendish said, somewhat defiantly. "It's just that when I crash, it's news, so it seems like I crash a lot.'' But he conceded the Milan-San Remo incident falls in a different category. "I'm damaged from that,'' he said. "It's one I didn't really bounce from. I can feel that and I think it's gonna take a long time, if ever, to kind of get right from that.''

The repeated impacts have limited his racing days this season, but Cavendish said he felt urgency to remount and train before the bruises faded, not least because of his team's affiliation with the Qhubeka project that raises money to provide bicycles in African communities.

"Pain's just pain, you know?'' he said. "My job at the end of the day is to race. I have teammates that obviously have to cover when I'm not at a race and sponsors that pay a fair bit of money for me. And when I'm riding, the charity benefits so much more, you really see the spikes in the donations that Qhubeka gets. There's a lot more riding on whether I can ride my bike or not. It sounds a bit unromantic, but it's my job, I have to get back and that's it.''

Aldag, who has been in Cavendish's corner for nearly his entire career, said he's not stressed about the recent past. Aldag pointed out that Cavendish followed up mixed results in 2014-15 with five stage victories in the 2016 Tour, when few thought he was still capable of winning in bunches.

"He wants to prove people wrong who have given up on him,'' Aldag said. "I think the worst thing that could happen for him is if the whole world would be in love with him.''

In California, Cavendish spent some downtime in the vast lobby of the race headquarters hotel chatting up colleagues on rival teams. Veteran Germans Marcel Kittel (Team Katusha) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), along with younger talents Fernando Gaviria of Colombia (Quick-Step) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) of the Netherlands, are among the top sprint contenders, and Sagan will be favored to win his sixth green jersey -- the race-within-the race that goes to the man who accumulates the most points in intermediate sprints and stage finishes.

"I don't have any chip on my shoulder any more,'' Cavendish told me. "It was me against the world when I was younger. Now it's not. There's bigger things to worry about than that. My rivals, most of them have families and they're people, you know.'' He paused, grinned and added: "Most of them.''

Talking about his own family makes Cavendish's voice grow low and warm. His wife, Peta, gave birth to their son Casper in May, adding to a household that includes her son Finnbar and their daughter Delilah and son Frey.

"She changed my life,'' Cavendish said. "Best thing that ever happened to me. She's the best mom I could ever wish for, best role model I could ever wish for for my daughter.

"Neither of us come from big families. You have this love for the kids and it's quite addictive, isn't it? I was a bit nervous when we were having the second one -- 'How can I love someone else like I love Delilah? I don't want to halve that love.' She said, 'It's not like you split it. It just doubles.' And it did.''

That seems to be the way love works for Cavendish on his bike as well, after all these years.