Just three years on from taking his first Tour de France win in Chateauroux, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) claimed no less than his 17th stage victory when he won the bunch sprint into the same town, finishing a bike length clear of Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and André Greipel (Omega Pharma).
Cavendish was set up perfectly by his eight HTC teammates, although it was Greipel who made the first move for the line, jumping clear on the right-hand side of the wide finishing boulevard from 200m out. As the German pressed on the right, Cavendish moved out from behind his lead-out man Mark Renshaw on the left, accelerated and never looked in danger of being beaten.
"This is a very special day for me. This was the one sprint that I really wanted apart from the one Paris because of its significance to me," said Cavendish soon after the finish. "The team took control early on and the camera shots of the run-in to the finish speak for themselves. The guys rode phenomenally well."
It was a very bittersweet day for British cycling, however, as Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins was forced to quit the race after being caught up in a big crash in the peloton with 40km remaining. Wiggins was left cradling his left shoulder and abandoned with a broken collarbone.
Told the news about Wiggins's misfortune, Cavendish was clearly shocked. "I didn't know that he'd crashed out," he said. "Where did that happen? I'm gutted for him. He is in the best form of his life and we could have brought home the sprints and yellow jersey to Britain.
"It's been particularly nervous this year – lots of riding on very small roads. And it's not normal to be fighting guys like Fränk Schleck for position with 4km to go like I was today. It's been really dangerous, but you just have to adapt to it."
The crash that ended Wiggins's Tour also saw FDJ's Rémi Pauriol forced out with a suspected broken collarbone, while RadioShack's run of bad luck continued. Chris Horner ended up a roadside ditch, but did manage to carry on after receiving treatment from the race doctor. However, the American finished more than 12 minutes down. His teammate Levi Leipheimer went down for the second day in a row and then punctured with just 7km remaining, but managed to finish in the 80-strong group that came home 3:06 down.
There was no change to the race lead, as Thor Hushovd finished 7th on the stage to maintain his grip on the yellow jersey heading into Saturday's stage to the summit finish at Super-Besse. Movistar's José Joaquín Rojas reclaimed the green jersey from Philippe Gilbert after finishing sixth in the day's intermediate sprint and ninth in Chateauroux. The Spaniard now leads the Belgian by 11 points, with Cavendish another six back in third.
"One of the objectives of the day was to get the green jersey back and we've achieved that, but I think this was my worst sprint of the Tour," said Rojas. "It was a super-nervous finish and it was very difficult to position myself. The only positive I take out of it is that I got the green jersey back."
Sky's ill-starred day also included the loss of Geraint Thomas's best young rider jersey. The Welshman finished in the second group after holding the white jersey for a week. It now moves onto the shoulders of Rabobank's Robert Gesink.
Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis no doubt spoke for many when he admitted that tomorrow's first sortie into the mountains can't come soon enough. "It was another and hopefully the final nervous stage of the race. I'm sorry to see that Wiggins is out because of a crash. Now, we're simply happy that we have reached the first mountains and we are probably going to see some of the top riders make an attack tomorrow. But I don't think it's going shake the GC that much. But I'm excited to see the race open in the mountains," said Riis.
A very early escape
Once again, the break of the day formed within moments of the flag marking the start of racing being dropped. Yannick Talabardon (Saur-Sojasun) and the FDJ duo of Gianni Meersman and Mickael Delage got clear inside the opening kilometre and were soon joined by Pablo Urtasun (Euskaltel). The quartet quickly opened up a sizeable gap, peaking at just under 8 minutes with 45km covered.
With 90km done, Quick Step's Tom Boonen became the highest profile figure so far to quit the race after struggling for two days with injuries sustained on stage 5.
A strong westerly wind helped to keep the break in check, especially when the more sheltered roads during the first half of the stage gave way to open highways as the riders closed in on Chateauroux. The leading quartet's advantage began to drop even more quickly when HTC and Garmin started to set a more persistent pace on the front of the peloton as the stage entered its final third.
A switch in the wind from across to more behind the riders provided an injection of pace that also increased the nervousness within the main peloton. The first clear indication of this came when a handful of riders crashed on the very right-hand side of the road with 48km remaining. None were obviously hurt, although Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis) had to chase hard to get back on.
With 40km remaining, there was a much bigger crash in the middle of the peloton. Dozens of riders went down, including Tyler Farrar, Alexandre Vinokourov, Leipheimer and Horner. But he most seriously affected was Team Sky leader Wiggins.
While Edvald Boasson Hagen, Xavier Zandio and Juan Antonio Flecha waited anxiously for their leader, Wiggins eventually got very gingerly to his feet, cradling his left arm. The doctor was quickly on the scene, carefully inspecting his shoulder as the Sky leader winced with pain. The first indication that his Tour was over came when his teammates were given the nod to move on as Wiggins sat down at the roadside. Moments later, his retirement was confirmed.
The intermediate sprint
Garmin and Leopard-Trek kept pressing the pace on the front of a much trimmed down bunch, as a group of 80-odd began to take shape behind, comprising those who had been caught up in the crash. Up ahead, the four breakaways reached the intermediate sprint at Buzançais. Delage jumped from the back of the line to take it ahead of teammate Meersman, who had set a fierce pace towards the line.
Less than a minute later, Mark Cavendish produced a flash of speed to take fifth place ahead of José Joaquín Rojas. Cavendish later revealed that in the melee before the sprint the binding on his shoe had been ripped open, and he'd only managed to secure it just before his HTC teammates led him out in that sprint.
The four breakaways were swept up with 14km remaining as HTC pushed the pace on the front of the peloton. After Lars Bak, Danny Pate and Tejay Van Garderen had done a lot of the spadework in keeping the break in touch and then bringing it back, Peter Velits and Bernhard Eisel produced powerful stints on the front of the bunch to set up Tony Martin going into final 1500m. Martin added more speed, Matt Goss upped it again, before Mark Renshaw provided Cavendish with another lift to set up for his dash towards a 17th Tour success.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.