AS sporting comebacks go, Mark Cavendish has shown the world how it’s done.
Just five years ago the British track and road cyclist was diagnosed with a devastating virus and his future looked unclear.
Now he is a joint Tour de France record holder, who has defied the odds by winning stage after stage — putting him level with legendary Belgian racer Eddy Merckx’s 34 winning stages from 1969 to 1975.
And if 36-year-old sprinter Mark wins tomorrow’s final stage in Paris he will have cycled straight into the history books — with even the French celebrating his achievements.
The Manx racer has been backed all along by wife Peta Todd and the couple’s four children, who will be there on the Champs-Elysees tomorrow hoping the dream comes true.
Speaking to The Sun, the 34-year-old former model and Sun columnist called his achievements a “fairytale”.
She said: “Regardless now of what happens, whether he beats the record or not, I think he’s already made history.
“It’s such a fairytale. It almost feels too good to be true that we could finish on that high.”
Peta added that it was a miracle he was even taking part in the gruelling race and said: “Being at the tour was never on the cards, so everything else — getting pulled up to that start line — was kind of enough already. And then every day after that it’s been a bonus. I’m really excited we’ve been able to come out for the children to see him finish in Paris because we don’t know if we’ll be back at the Tour de France again.”
Mark had the chance to beat 76-year-old Merckx’s record yesterday during a sprint stage — something Merckx himself would have witnessed first-hand, having joined Mark at the start of the 76-mile leg in Mourenx in south-western France, where the pair embraced.
But as it turned out, Mark was denied victory by Slovenian rider Matej Mohoric.
It had been just days into the race when Mark won his first stage in five years, and his 31st overall, and broke down in tears of joy at the finish line. The world watched as he held his team-mates in a bear hug then sat in the road, wiping his eyes.
He later said: “Just being here is special enough. I didn’t think I would ever get to come back to this race.”
And at home in Essex, Peta and kids Finnbar, 15, Delilah, nine, Frey, five and Casper, three, shared the emotion of winning at the contest.
She said: “I watched Mark sat hunched over, crying hard like a child, overcome with a million emotions, most of which I couldn’t begin to unravel. I screamed so loud that I felt my lungs would burst.
“The children cried. They may not fully understand these last few years but they know what it felt like.
“He had experienced rock bottom and almost grieved for a part of his life that had been snatched away by illness but he’d clawed his way back.”
Now, on the eve of the final stage of the race, the family have got behind Mark as always — including Delilah, who has convinced her mum to paint her nails green like Mark’s jersey, for luck.
Peta said: “I’m rocking around with some kind of green design on my nails against my will, just on the offchance that it has an effect.”
Mark almost missed being selected for the Tour but was drafted in as a replacement when Sam Bennett, his team-mate in the Deceuninck–Quick-Step race team, was injured.
Peta told how boss Patrick Lefevere messaged her while she was in Nando’s, saying he urgently needed Mark to race in Belgium the following day in Bennett’s place. Mark then flew to Italy to train as a back-up for the Tour de France — finding out he had made the cut just two days before the big race began in June.
Peta said: “We were both in shock. The tears and heartbreak of the past few years were going to start to be healed. Just going made his heart sing — no expectation, no pressure.
“Obviously getting a chance because somebody else is injured is never nice and we know first-hand how it feels to be on the other side. But when you are handed an opportunity, you have to take it with both hands.
“The wins are amazing and I have been doing my best to enjoy these moments, as I know they can leave as quickly as they arrived.”
Indeed, just five years ago Mark had been flying high in the world of cycling. He had signed to new team Dimension Data, worn his first yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and won a medal at the Rio Olympics and a world track title.
But in 2017 it began to appear something was very wrong. Peta said: “Mark was still winning races but he was suffering at home, struggling to keep his eyes open, sleeping for 19 hours a day, with no real explanation.
“It was hard to explain to the kids why Daddy couldn’t play or even hold much of a conversation when we had no explanation ourselves.
“Then a text from his then team doctor arrived — ‘Cav, you have Epstein-Barr virus’. Nothing more. No plan or explanation.”
The virus, which can cause fevers, aches and fatigue, is incurable and if the victim does not rest it can lead to permanent chronic fatigue syndrome.
Mark and the family worked hard with doctors and a coaching friend to get him ready for the Tour de France in 2017. But four days into the race, Mark was in a crash and fractured his shoulder, forcing him to quit.
Peta said: “It was a huge knock. Things were unsettled at the team he was at and we were spending long periods apart, him chasing his pre-illness fitness levels and me managing the children, work and all the other stuff that comes with it.”
After the Tour de France crash, Mark suffered three more crashes, with a serious incident at Italy’s Milan-San Remo race in March 2018.
Peta said: “He was wearing these fluoro orange cycling shoes at the time and as I watched from home with the children, I saw them go flying through the air.
“It seemed to take hours before someone called to let me speak to him. ‘Girl, I can’t feel my legs’ — those were the first words he said as he lay in the ambulance.
“I had an audience of little eyes watching me, waiting for my response about their daddy. So I blinked back hot tears as I told him I was sure his body was in shock and he would be fine: Just stay calm — words I struggled to even say, let alone believe.”
Despite his injuries, Mark took part in the Tour de France again in 2018 after he was told his Epstein-Barr was under control.
Peta said: “As soon as the race started he said he felt as if it was too fast, like a different sport.
“His body didn’t feel familiar to him and he questioned his previous blood test but was told all was well.” Mark was upset when he missed the time cut on the 11th stage but finished the remaining 115km alone.
After the family returned home from France, Mark collapsed during a trip to the cinema with Delilah.
They consulted a trusted doctor Mark had seen before, and Peta said: “Boom. Straight away the answers were there.
“His Epstein-Barr marker levels were through the roof — he should have been home in bed and not riding the Tour de France.”
To add insult to injury, his team controversially left Mark out of the line-up for the 2019 Tour de France — the first time he had missed it since 2007.
It led to Mark falling into a deep, dark depression, while Peta suffered her own problems, including a serious allergic reaction to the contraceptive coil. She said: “To be honest, that year is a blur — a haze of fighting each other, the team, himself. Things were hard for me with trying to balance all the things the children needed and get my own health back on track.
“I missed the version of myself that wasn’t always treading water trying to catch a moment with our head above water.”
The mum of four told how dealing with a loved one’s mental health issues is not always as simple as living by the social media mantra “#bekind”.
She said: “There would be days when the shadows would mean Mark had very few kind words for me.
“He didn’t like me. He didn’t even really like himself, and I didn’t always like the version of him that I was fighting so desperately for.
“But I loved him as much as ever and believed in him as my husband, a bike rider, and in us.”
In 2020, Mark had a fresh start with the team Bahrain–McLaren, but the family had their hopes dashed when Mark was not selected for the Tour and failed to secure a contract.
After the Gent-Wevelgem race in Belgium, he burst into tears, telling journalists: “That’s perhaps the last race of my career.”
And Peta told how she found her husband’s anguish too much to bear. She said: “I sobbed when I saw it. I knew how hard he was working.
“I knew that given the chance he could thrive again in the sport he had given his whole life to.” Then last December, Mark was handed a lifeline by Deceuninck–Quick-Step — his former team, who took him on again. The wins began to roll in and Mark silenced his critics.
Peta said: “The man I had been hoping would return to the surface was there. It felt as though for the first time in years he had caught a break and our luck was going to change.”
Now, as Mark nears the end of his 13th Tour de France, Peta proudly says her husband has defied all expectations.
She said: “I never gave up hoping we would pull through.
“If I’d have written this as a script you would have called it a fairytale.
“But believe me, we have gone way beyond any fairytale.”