Stage victories were once routine for the Manxman in cycling's biggest race - this was number 31 - but there was nothing ordinary about Tuesday's win in Fougeres.
There was the drama of the race itself - the sprint teams leaving it desperately late to catch breakaway rider Brent Van Moer, denied within 200 metres of the line - before Cavendish overhauled Jasper Philipsen to beat Nacer Bouhanni by a bike length.
But more than that there was the backstory - a champion who has battled demons on and off the bike in the five years since his last Tour win, who feared his career was over last winter, but who has grasped the lifeline offered by his old boss Patrick Lefevere and run with it.
After the finish the 36-year-old collapsed in tears as he was congratulated by team-mates and rivals alike, then struggled to find words in his television interview.
"Just being here is special enough. I didn't think I would ever get to come back to this race,” he said.
"You just see what a great team this is. You've got the green jersey, the world champion Julian Alaphilippe coming to do the final pull just to try to catch the breakaway, putting everything in.
"So many people didn't believe in me but these guys do."
Cavendish has been written off many times in his long career, but the greatest challenges have come in recent years. A long battle with Epstein-Barr virus and a succession of injuries was followed by a diagnosis of clinical depression in 2018.
Results dried up entirely - he had not a single win in 2019 or 2020 - and was left without a contract heading into 2021.
But after being offered a lifeline by Lefevere at Deceuninck-QuickStep, Cavendish has rediscovered himself.
"It's something I've always wanted to instil in my kids," said Cavendish, who moves into the points leader's green jersey with the win. "I was physically sick, I was mentally sick but I just wanted to get back and I knew I couldn't give up.
"I've got to make an example to my kids and for other people to take inspiration from. If you don't give up, good things will happen."
Cavendish's selection for the Tour came thanks to an injury to Sam Bennett, but there is a feeling of the stars aligning, of unfinished business for Cavendish, even if he has long since tired of questions about Eddy Merckx's all-time record of 34 stage wins.
But that topic will inevitably return given how many more sprint opportunities await in this Tour - the next of them coming on Thursday in Chateauroux - scene of Cavendish's first Tour win back in 2008.
After a half-hearted protest about the safety of Monday’s finale from the peloton, there were no major spills on Tuesday, but four taxing days in Brittany have already created unexpected gaps in the general classification and Mathieu Van Der Poel will surely hand over the yellow jersey after Wednesday’s time trial.