The first week hasn't been a happy hunting ground for Mark Cavendish, but according to the Manxman he and his HTC-Highroad team fought a nervous Tour de France peloton and adversity created by the race organisers to win stage five of this year's race.
After what was a tough finishing kilometre in Cap Fréhel, Cavendish earned his 16th and arguably sweetest Tour stage win in tough circumstances – a peloton hell bent on destroying itself with crashes and a long finale that seemed to take an eternity – which came after four days that have hardly been memorable for the 26-year-old.
Cavendish attributed this last factor to the organisers planning the route of this year's Tour; he could hardly be accused of delivering the usual post-win clichés in his interview after the stage and lambasted them somewhat for the route of the opening four days.
"The organisers made it hard for us to have a bunch sprint in the first week of the Tour this year – that's because we dominated last year and they tried to make a handicap for us so we started on the back foot this year," said Cavendish.
Whilst many are accustomed to seeing the Manxman fire at the end of an HTC-Highroad train in the final kilometre, today Cavendish had to come from behind the first half-dozen sprinters and stake his claim at the head of the race, just when it mattered.
It was an impressive display and possibly a reflection of both self-belief in the face of his declared adversity and an increasing ability to adapt to the conditions of the day.
"The nine guys on our team did a tremendous job – it didn't look like the normal train we had but in the last 15k they kept the pace high and strung it out. If they didn't do that I would have been a kilometre behind at the finish," Cavendish said.
"That finish was hard – really hard. It was a proper hard finish," he gasped. "Coming into the last kilometre [former teammate, André] Greipel bashed into me...After the other day, what was I supposed to do?"
Nevertheless, Cavendish made the most of an opportunity to come around the outside of the leading sprinters and relegate Omega Pharma-Lotto's Philippe Gilbert – who appeared destined for another stage win – and Movistar jumper José Joaquin Rojas to second and third place respectively.
"You can see what sort of finish it was – Brad [Wiggins] was up there, G [Geraint Thomas] was too," Cavendish continued. "It was proper hard. My legs were going, going, going...I'm really happy. It's just good that we came out against adversity."
Janez Brajkovic hits the deck
There was more extreme adversity for some, including defending champion Alberto Contador, as crashes marred what was a nervous and messy day. The likes of Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack) and Christophe Kern (Team Europcar) abandoned whilst Tom Boonen may also abandon before proceedings get underway tomorrow in Dinan.
Staying out of trouble and in the mix was Garmin-Cervélo's Thor Hushovd, who remains in yellow and must not be thinking of holding onto the jersey until the first decent mountain finish in Super Besse this Sancy this weekend.
There was a change to the green jersey classification after some questionable sprinting from the field for sixth place on the intermediate sprint point, Boonen and points leader Rojas were both disqualified for the bonus points. The seven points Rojas lost in that decision dropped him behind Gilbert in the green jersey competition, but the call was only made after the podium presentation had taken place.
Cirque du Soleil but no sunshine in Brittany
The early break
For the spirited four who got their day off to an invigorated start by jumping away, the breakaway was the safest place to be. Those men with a sixth sense for safety were Tristan Valentin of Cofidis, Europcar's Sébastien Turgot, José Ivan Gutierrez from Movistar and the youthful Anthony Delaplace of Saur-Sojasun.
With 120km left in the stage, the break had been retrieved to within five minutes of the peloton, although it was in no great rush to peg back the four out front.
With about 90km to go the circus started: two seemingly innocuous accidents affected three of the pre-race favourites; RadioShack's Janez Brajkovic was forced to withdraw whilst Alberto Contador felt the wrath of the gods again by crashing; another setback that saw him require a bike change and a swift ride back to the peloton. Rabobank rider Robert Gesink also came down and made it back to the relative safety of the group with the defending champ.
Meanwhile, away from the confusion and calamity, the leading quartet still had itself a lead in excess of 3:30. A further 10km down the road to Cap Fréhel that gap had been slashed by a minute as Danish champion Nicki Sörensen (Saxo Bank Sungard) added to Bjarne Riis's woes when he was brought down by a TV motorbike that came too close for comfort.
Garmin-Cervelo drive it
In the following three kilometres another minute was wiped from the lead enjoyed by the four up front – and the reason? Garmin-Cervélo driving the pace at the head of proceedings in an attempt to set up the second half of the stage for a sprint finish.
As Jonathan Vaughters's men seared the break's steak at the front of the peloton, amongst the cars, Brajkovic's teammate Yaroslav Popovych wasn't immune to the crash-fest taking place, the Ukrainian veteran sporting some road rash and undoubtedly some bruising for tomorrow's jaunt to Lisieux after taking a tumble.
Another man sporting some sore spots tomorrow will be Boonen, who came down with teammates Dries Devenyns and Gert Steegmans as the leaders clicked over 58km until the close of play. He limped back to the finish with Addy Engels for company but it's unlikely he'll take any further part in this year's Tour.
Setting it up early
Having knocked the gap between peloton and break down to 30 seconds, Garmin-Cervélo readjusted its strategy and took its collective foot off the gas to preserve energy before the finale – one that it hoped would favour Tyler Farrar. Consequently, the leading quartet shot back to a 1:38 lead and the catch would be saved for a later date in the day's proceedings.
That would happen with 45km remaining – still a long way from home – but surely there was a sting to come in the tale of the day. Europcar's Thomas Voeckler and FDJ rider Jeremy Roy decided they would provide that with an attack as the peloton approached 32km remaining in the stage.
Four kilometres later the duo had amassed a lead of 41 seconds, with BMC Racing, Leopard Trek and Liquigas-Cannondale patrolling the front of the peloton and as the main group hit 25 clicks until the finish the cross-tailwind kicked in to assist its pursuit of the plucky two men out front.
Voeckler bids for glory
With 12.5km to go the gap had actually increased to 1:02, although with HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo on the front of the peloton that was sure to rapidly decrease as the impetus ran through the main group, reflected in the fact that the leading duo had 27 seconds as it passed the 10km-to-go banner – according to the time board, at least. On the road that looked a lot smaller.
After a stint on the front together of 29km Voeckler decided it was time to bid adieu to Roy and try his hand at a solo victory. A kilometre later he realised the dream was over and with just two clicks left in a bizarre stage, it was time to Allan Peiper's men to again demonstrate why they are regarded as the best in the sprint game.
With Tony Martin leading Matt Goss at the head of proceedings, the Australian swung off, creating a gap that was soon filled by Team Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen, as the Norwegian – and former Highroad rider – took a flier before the flamme rouge.
There was no fairytale however, as he too was swept up and deposited out the back of the sprint with teammate and best young rider Geraint Thomas in the thick of the action. Instead it was another Brit, Cavendish, making the running with 150 metres remaining to round the contenders and make it sweet 16.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.