By Julien Pretot

LIBOURNE, France (Reuters) -Mark Cavendish’s hopes of breaking the record for stage wins at the Tour de France ended in cruel fashion on Saturday when the Briton crashed out of this year’s race, which he has long said will be his last.

The 38-year-old, who will retire at the end of the year, fell off his bike with 64km left in the eighth stage, and was taken into an ambulance for checks before his withdrawal was made official by race organisers.

The Astana-Qazaqstan rider was looking to become the only man with 35 stage wins on the world’s greatest cycling race to beat the record he shares with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, who bagged 34 victories from 1969-75.

On Friday, Cavendish came close to achieving his goal when he took second place in the seventh stage in Bordeaux after suffering a mechanical problem in the final straight.

Cavendish held his right arm after crashing on Saturday, and then held his head in disbelief as he climbed into the race ambulance where doctors strapped his shoulder.

His withdrawal was effectively confirmed when the ambulance’s door was slammed shut, bringing a close to a remarkable Tour de France adventure that started in 2007.

Cavendish, who started as a self-described “boy who wanted to fight the world”, won his first stage in Chateauroux in 2008, bursting into the limelight as he claimed another three victories that year.

Cavendish has repeatedly proclaimed his love for a race that gave him the best moments of his career, but also the most heartbreaking one on Saturday.

While he was beaten three times in bunch sprints by Belgian Jasper Philipsen, Cavendish clocked the fastest speed in two of them, showing his last Tour would not just be an easy farewell ride.

It ended in the most brutal fashion in a crash that noboby saw coming in the haze of a sunny afternoon before the expected final sprint on a mostly flat stage.

“The Tour is equally cruel and magnificent,” race director Christian Prudhomme said before the Tour started in Bilbao last week.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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