BRUSSELS -- Veteran sprinter Mark Cavendish will make a return to the Tour de France after a three-year absence from cycling's biggest event, his team said Monday.
Cavendish was not expected to be among the eight riders selected by Deceuninck-Quick-Step but was a last-minute inclusion following Sam Bennett's withdrawal.
The three-week race starts Saturday in Brittany from the port city of Brest.
Cavendish, 36, has won 30 Tour de France stages, putting him second in the all-time list behind only Belgian great Eddy Merckx. However, he last won a stage in 2016.
He also won the best sprinter's green jersey in 2011, a coveted prize that Bennett claimed last year.
"Obviously, the circumstances with Sam could be better -- he had a special Tour last year and I am sad for him not being able to defend his green jersey," said Cavendish, known as the Manx Missile. "But at the same time, I am excited to be going back to a race that I have such an affinity with and where I have so much history.
"It is the biggest bike race in the world, and I am going to do all I can to grab this opportunity with both hands."
Cavendish has struggled in recent years, even taking a break from cycling after being diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus for the second time in 2018. He has enjoyed a resurgence this season, posting five wins after returning to Deceuninck-Quick-Step for 2021.
Bennett was forced to withdraw because of a right knee injury.
"I had a very minor incident during training a couple of weeks ago, which affected my knee," Bennett said. "While the injury I sustained is very short-term, it impacted my training for the biggest bike race in the world all too much and left me without enough time to be race fit."
World champion Julian Alaphilippe, who wore the race leader's yellow jersey for 14 days two years ago, will lead the squad. Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen was also included alongside Davide Ballerini, Mattia Cattaneo, Tim Declercq, Dries Devenyns and Michael Morkov.
"Mark returns to the Tour, and it's great to have someone with his history and experience on the team. He will have a superb lead-out with Ballerini and Morkov," Deceuninck-Quick-Step sports director Tom Steels said.