The Briton, who finished out of time in his previous appearance in 2018, crashed in 2017 and hinted at retirement last year. He is now three victories behind the absolute record for Tour stage victories held by Belgian great Eddy Merckx.
Cavendish, back in the Deceuninck-Quick Step squad this season after a five-year hiatus, passed his rivals in the home stretch to beat Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni down the line.
Belgian Jasper Philipsen took third place while his teammate Alpecin-Fenix Mathieu van der Poel retained the yellow jersey of the leader of the general classification.
“I don’t know what to say,” said a tearful Cavendish, who was a last-minute squad replacement for Irishman Sam Bennett.
“Just being here is pretty special. I didn’t know I could come back to this race. Honestly, I thought I would never come back (to the Tour), but the stars somehow aligned. Another After last year, it’s just nice to get lucky.
“We didn’t know we were going to get there, but we see how great a team it is. So many people didn’t believe in me, but these guys do.”
They then traveled the next 10 kilometers at a snail pace.
As the stage drew to a close, Brent van Moer’s breakaway was about to shock the sprinters. But he was caught by the charging peloton 150 meters from the line, Cavendish producing a perfectly timed effort to snatch his 49th stage victory on a Grand Tour in the city where he had also won in 2015.
Wednesday’s fifth stage is a 27.2 km individual time trial from Change to Laval, and all eyes will be on the overall contenders.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe, who is aiming for a potential podium in Paris after finishing fifth overall in 2019, is second, eight seconds behind Van der Poel. He hopes his last mile effort to put Cavendish in a good sprint position won’t cost him anything.
Colombian Richard Carapaz is third, 31 seconds behind the pace with defending champion Tadej Pogacar eight seconds ahead.
Carapaz Ineos-Grenadiers teammate Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour champion, is 1:07 behind Van der Poel while last year’s finalist Primoz Roglic is 1:35 behind.
You Can Read Also