Britain’s Mark Cavendish finally relaunched his stuttering sprint on the Tour de France by powering to victory on the fifth stage on Thursday.
Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara retained the overall leader’s yellow yersey on another crash-free day for the peloton as they rode through the heat of Champagne country in pursuit of a three-man breakaway.
The last of that trio, Spanish champion Jose Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse d’Epargne, was caught with three kilometres of the 187,5km ride from Epernay remaining.
The sprinters’ teams, notably Garmin, HTC-Columbia, Lampre and Cervelo then engaged in a tactical battle for the best position at the front, with Cavendish finally prevailing after emerging from the wheel of lead-out man Mark Renshaw.
Milram’s German sprinter Gerald Ciolek finished second with Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen in third for the second day in a row for Team Sky.
It was the 24-year-old Cavendish’s 11th career win on the world’s biggest bike race, and comes in the wake of several failures in a week which has seen Italian veteran Alessandro Petacchi dominate two sprints.
After he misfired on the fourth stage Wednesday when HTC-Columbia finally got their sprint train together, Cavendish admitted it was a huge relief to get the monkey off his back.
“The guys did an incredible job, they were fighting right till the end and I had to finish it off. It’s a great relief and a great sense of achievement,” said Cavendish, who won an incredible six stages on the 2009 edition.
“We’ve had some bad luck on this Tour and then yesterday we had some good luck and they did a great job but I let the guys down.
“They could have given up today and they didn’t.”
Ahead of Friday’s long 227,5 km stage to Gueugnon, which could again end in a bunch sprint, Cancellara leads Britain’s Geraint Thomas by 23sec in the overall standings.
The best-placed yellow jersey contender is Australia’s Cadel Evans (BMC) who is third at 39sec, with fellow challenger Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) sixth at 1:09 and reigning champion Alberto Contador (Astana) ninth at 1:40.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong of RadioShack is still 18th overall at 2:30 off the pace.
The first mountain stages will be held this weekend, although because Saturday’s first day in the Alps is not overly difficult Cancellara could realistically keep the lead till then.
Nevertheless, the Swiss indicated he won’t be killing himself to keep it.
“I haven’t programmed when I’ll give up the yellow jersey,” said Cancellara.
“We’re just taking things day by day. Yesterday and today were stages that will be easy to control although tomorrow [Friday] will be a long stage [227.5km] and then come the mountains.
“I’m more looking forward to the rest day than thinking about keeping the yellow jersey!”
Norwegian Thor Hushovd meanwhile claimed 22 points for his fifth place finish to add to his tally for the green jersey.
With 102 points, he now leads Italy’s Petacchi by 14, with Australian Robbie McEwen on 81 and Cavendish closing the gap significantly thanks to his win but still 52 points behind the Norwegian two-time winner.
Hushovd echoed the thoughts of several riders when he said the soaring temperatures had dented his chances of arriving at the home straight in prime condition to sprint.
“I suffered yesterday [Wednesday] and today from the heat,” said Hushovd.
“In the sprint I was battling with Renshaw and he went on to lead out Cavendish. I just didn’t have the power today.” — AFP