Mark Cavendish reasserted his dominance in the bunch sprints of the Tour de France, winning in Lavaur by a half a bike length and claiming the green jersey. He beat none other than arch-rival Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who pipped him at the line the previous day. Third went to this Tour's other sprint winner, Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Cervelo.
It was the 18th career Tour de France stage victory for the HTC-Highroad sprinter, and his third of this year's Tour.
All of the favourites crossed the line together in a group, causing no changes in the GC. Thomas Voeckler of Europcar easily held on to his yellow jersey for one more day, with Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) lurking behind him in second and third as the mountains approach.
Voeckler enjoyed what he knew would probably be his last day in yellow. "To be honest, I expect to lose the jersey tomorrow, but that doesn't mean I won't fight. I will try, but we'll see."
Defending the yellow jersey has been difficult on the Europcar team, which is down to eight men after Christoph Kern abandoned with tendinitis on stage 5.
"We have three riders who are in their first Tour de France, and we lost Kern at the start. He was very important for us, especially in the mountains. I still have Charteau, Rolland and Gautier for the climbs, but we really miss Kern."
HTC-Highroad led the high-speed chase in the pouring rain much of the stage, but still managed to have enough left over to set up a sprint even with losing Matt Goss, who is suffering from stomach problems, before the final lead-out.
It was HTC versus Garmin-Cervélo coming into the final 300 meters, but it was Geraint Thomas of Sky who opened the sprint in an attempt to set up Edvald Boasson Hagen for his second stage victory. But once Mark Renshaw took over with Cavendish on his wheel, it was game over for his competition. Cavendish went early, but easily held on to his lead against the charging Greipel, who was looking to pull off another upset win but had to come from sixth wheel to do so.
"When the guys ride like they did yesterday and then I don't finish the job it's hard to take. But then I go out and make sure I win," he said immediately after watching the television replay of his sprint.
"The guys were phenomenal today. There were six super strong guys up there but we rode with just two all day: Lars Bak and Danny Pate. We had to put Tejay (Van Garderen), Peter Velits and Bernie Eisel up there. We've got Martin and Velits going for GC but they worked for me."
Cavendish said he didn't know he had Greipel bearing down on him in the final 50 meters.
"I just went. I said I'd kick and when I kick I normally get a gap. I made the mistake of not hitting it hard yesterday. My danger is my acceleration and if I do that, I get a gap and can hold it.
Farrar had hoped for another win today but had to settle for third after running out of steam before the line. "With the downpour we had to race in it was really crazy. We just misjudged it a little bit and came up 100m short on the lead-out. The legs were there, it definitely felt fast. There are a few more opportunities [for a stage win]."
With just two climbs on the stage and only a total of three points maximum available, the hero of the Tour de France, Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) was able to hold onto his polka dot jersey for another day. He and fellow crash victim Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) finished at the back of the main group, still bandaged up like mummies.
Going for green
The victory also allowed Cavendish to once again pull on the green jersey, one of his goals for the Tour de France this year. He came into the stage in third place in the points classification, with 197 points to 209 for Jose Joaquin Rojas and leader Philippe Gilbert's 226 points.
However, Cavendish won the sprint from the peloton at the intermediate sprint, taking nine points, against eight for Rojas and only five for Gilbert. That set him up to take over the lead in the finale, as Gilbert was not expected to mix in the sprint.
That was how it worked out. Cavendish galloped to the finish line first, taking the 45 points for first place, with Rojas claiming only 18 back in seventh place. Gilbert finished out of the points in 66th place.
Cavendish thus claimed the points lead and the green jersey with a total of 251 points, ahead of Rojas at 235 and Gilbert at 231. Greipel lurks in fourth place with 164 points.
Wet wet wet
The break of the day gets going
It was another rainy day in southern France, as one rider failed to appear at the start. John Gadret of AG2R gave his reason as fatigue.
As expected, an escape group formed and got away early. Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Mickael Delage (FDJ), Tristan Valentin (Cofidis) and Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun) escaped about 15km into the stage. They quickly built up enough of a lead to scare the sprinters's teams.
HTC-Highroad moved in to share the lead work with Europcar as the gap went above four minutes, and they combined to keep it around the 4:20 mark, eventually bringing it down to 3:30.
The only drama in the early and middle part of the stage came at the intermediate sprint. Mark Cavendish of HTC-Highroad slyly got on the wheel of yesterday's stage winner, Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto). The Manxman took the honours this go-round, slipping out to take the points ahead of Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar). The top points went to the six in the lead group, but Cavendish still picked up nine points. Gilbert got only five points, as he was gapped and unable to keep up with the top sprinters.
That moved Cavendish up to 206 points, only 25 behind Gilbert and put the green jersey within his reach with a win or good finish at the stage end.
More and more teams moved into share the lead work and HTC-Highroad pulled itself back as the gap came down and the finish line came closer. It also gave the GC teams the opportunity to protect their captains on the wet roads and cross winds on the descent of the day's second and final climb, the category four Cote de Puylaure.
Once that was successfully negotiated, the sprinters' teams moved back into their working position, pulling the field along through the rather ghostly woods on an exceptionally grey day.
Voeckler well protected
The closer the finish came, the worse the weather got. Pouring down rain promised a potentially dangerous sprint. It took seemingly forever for HTC to pull the peloton to the escape group.
Boom attacked as the peloton neared the group with four kilometers to go, but he was merely postponing the inevitable as the others were gathered in one kilometer later, and he too was soon caught, swept away in the pouring rain.
Garmin-Cervelo took over the lead work with two kilometers to go and led the way under the flamme rouge. Sky took over the lead, but Cavendish jumped early. Greipel gave furious chase but was unable to catch the Manxman this time.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.