By Julien Pretot
CHATEAUROUX, France (Reuters) -Mark Cavendish's stunning comeback on the Tour de France continued when the Briton claimed his second victory in this year's race with a perfectly-executed sprint on Thursday.
The Deceuninck-Quick Step rider now has 32 stage wins on the Tour and is two short of the all-time record of Belgian great Eddy Merck as he takes part in the world's greatest race for the first time since 2018.
Cavendish finished off his team mates' work in the final straight after being led out by Michael Morkov. The 36-year-old Briton beat Belgian Jasper Philipsen and France's Nacer Bouhanni who finished second and third.
It was Cavendish's third victory on Chateauroux, where he won his first Tour stage in 2008 and just like 13 years ago, the Manxman held his helmet in apparent disbelief when he crossed the line.
"Chateauroux is a massive old school Tour de France sprint, you can see the finish line from the one-kilometre banner," said Cavendish, who still refuses to discuss Merckx's record.
"That's what special about it. Here, Paris and Bordeaux are big sprint towns and it's an honour to have won all of them."
After his victory in Fougeres, where he had already won before, on Tuesday, Cavendish was expected to be in the mix again and he duly delivered as he looked unbeatable in the last 300 metres.
"It's not like I'm more confident, it's just that it was less of a shock. We knew we could do it. I'm not saying we knew we would do it, but we knew we could."
After hinting at retirement last season amid poor results, Cavendish was hired again this year by the Belgian team where he spent three years from 2013-15 and he has now repaid team boss Patrick Lefevere's faith with two Tour victories.
"It's incredible, it's a nice little story that doesn't end," said Lefevere.
With four more stages potentially ending in a bunch sprint, Cavendish is well placed to at least match Merckx's record of 34 stage wins.
Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel retained the race leader's yellow jersey as the top positions in the general classification remained unchanged.
Friday's seventh stage, the longest in this year's race, is an undulating 249.1km ride between Vierzon and Le Creusot before the riders turn their focus to the mountains on Saturday.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond)