RIMINI, Italy (AP) — Mark Cavendish appeared to struggle with stomach and heat issues during the opening stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.

He barely finished within the maximum time limit to keep alive his pursuit of breaking a tie with Eddy Merckx for the most career stage wins in cycling’s biggest race.

Vomiting while on his bike, Cavendish dropped behind the pack on the very first climb, the second-category Col de Valico Tre Faggi, and four Astana teammates dropped back to help the British rider.

But Cavendish hung on and finished 174th of the 175 riders who completed the stage. He crossed 39 minutes, 12 seconds behind stage winner Romain Bardet.

Cavendish equaled Merckx’s mark of 34 stage wins during the 2021 Tour and came close to winning a 35th on the seventh stage in 2023. He then crashed during the eighth stage last year, breaking his right collarbone. So the 39-year-old Cavendish put off retirement by a year to come back and try again at breaking his tie with Merckx.

The 206-kilometer (128-mile) route from Florence to the Adriatic coastal resort of Rimini marked one of the toughest Tour starts in recent memory, featuring seven categorized climbs and more than 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) of ascending.

Heat was also a factor on the opening day, with the temperature soaring to 36 degrees (97 F). Teammates dumped water over Cavendish’s head to try and cool him down. Then Cavendish vomited twice, once near the top of the opening climb and again on the descent.

Cavendish, who won his first Tour stage way back in 2008, was just hoping to get by in the opening two stages before aiming for the record in Monday’s third leg, the first flat stage that sets up well for sprinters. There’s another handful of flat stages later in the race.

It was a rough day for the entire Astana team as Tour rookie Michele Gazzoli — one of the riders who dropped back to help Cavendish — abandoned the race midway through the stage.

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AP cycling: https://apnews.com/hub/cycling