Cavendish was hoping to end the Tour with his fifth stage victory of the race, one which would have moved him clear of Eddy Merckx as the winner of a record 35.
But it was not to be as the Manxman got squeezed out on the run to the line and Merckx’s compatriot took his third stage win of this Tour – the first man since Bernard Hinault in 1979 to win a mountain stage, a sprint and a time trial in the same Tour.
Tadej Pogacar, 22, crossed the line to confirm his second consecutive overall title for UAE Team Emirates, winning by five minutes and 20 seconds from Jonas Vingegaard, with Richard Carapaz completing the podium.
The fairytale ending to this Tour was not to be for Cavendish, but this will still go down as a remarkable performance after he accepted a late call-up to the squad and took his first stage wins since 2016.
“I’m really happy to have eight guys get to Paris safe and after 10 years to get the green jersey again,” Cavendish said. “It would have been nice to finish it off with a win, but it is what it is.”
With history beckoning, Van Aert had joked that he would do his best to defend Merckx’s record for Belgium and, although he could not stop Cavendish equalling it, the 26-year-old was there to make sure it was not broken on the Champs-Elysees.
Van Aert’s stage win added to the remarkable salvage job Jumbo-Visma have done in this Tour after losing leader Primoz Roglic in the opening week - winning four stages and getting Vingegaard on the podium, despite finishing with only four riders.
“It’s been such a roller-coaster and to finish off with a win like this is beyond my expectations,” Van Aert said.
“I guess I gave myself a problem because I have to catch a flight tonight (to the Olympics) and all these interviews will take a while. I’ll have to see if I can get there, but I’m definitely not sorry that I went for it today.
“To win three stages like this is priceless.”
Cavendish’s record attempt was not the only reason Merckx’s name was being mentioned on Sunday, with Pogacar already drawing comparisons with the ‘Cannibal’ for his astonishing success.
In 50 days of competition this season, the 22-year-old has spent 22 days as the leader of a race and notched 31 top-10 results.
This year the famous finish line on the Champs-Elysees was moved 350 metres further up the boulevard, closer to the Arc de Triomphe.
The longer run-in from the final bend should have suited the strong lead-out of Cavendish’s Deceuninck-QuickStep squad, but they got themselves out of position in the final two kilometres.
“I shouldn’t have left (Michael) Morkov’s wheel,” Cavendish said. “I knew I was in a pretty dark situation, I knew I was boxed in.”
There was a brief moment when space opened up to Van Aert’s right, but Jasper Philipsen swept in to leave Cavendish banging his handlebars in third.
However, the Manxman had done enough to secure the points classification - a decade after he previously took the green jersey in 2011 - and was able to celebrate with his family on the podium.
“It’s a blessing just to be in this Tour de France, let alone here in Paris, so I’m really happy with that,” he added.
“It’s been an emotional three weeks, there’s a beautiful bond we’ve got with the riders, management and staff, and the success we’ve had these three weeks will live a long time in our memories.”
Cavendish is now expected to speak to team boss Patrick Lefevere about a new contract but that was not on his mind on Sunday night.
“I’ll buy him some whiskies tonight and then we’ll see,” he said.