Britain’s Mark Cavendish labelled himself the best sprinter in the world after claiming his first Tour de France victory on the race’s fifth stage over 232km into Chateauroux Wednesday.
Germany’s Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) finished with the bunch to retain the yellow jersey with a 12-second lead on Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen, with Britain’s David Millar in third overall also at 12.
Cavendish, who won twice at last month’s Giro d’Italia, finished off the hard work of his Columbia team after they were forced to put numbers up at the front of the chasing peloton to guarantee the race’s first bunch sprint finish.
German Gerald Ciolek then crucially led the Manxman past Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd before Cavendish put in a final burst to cross the line ahead of Spaniard Oscar Freire.
“It’s the biggest thing to have happened to me and it means so much,” said Cavendish, a world Madison champion in track who will compete in the endurance event at the upcoming Olympics. “I’m only 23 and I came here to win a stage and that is what I have done.”
Germany’s Erik Zabel came third, with Hushovd – the winner of the second stage – finishing fourth and taking the green jersey from Kirchen. Hushovd, who won the green jersey two years ago, now has a three-point lead over Freire in the points competition.
“I’ve won a stage here and now I can concentrate on the green jersey. That’s my main aim in Paris, although I would still like to win a stage or two,” said the Norwegian, who had a quick compliment for Cavendish. “He’s a big talent and he’s fast. Today he was the strongest.”
Cavendish, a two-year professional who has had a remarkable impact during his fledgling career, was quick to share out the plaudits to his team. But having now added a Tour stage to his growing list of victories on the road and track, the 23-year-old wasn’t shy in giving himself a pat on the back.
“I think there’s still a mentality in Great Britain, where people don’t appreciate they have people that are so good,” said Cavendish. “Although I’ve won quite a lot – this is my eighth victory this year and I had 11 last year – it was only a Tour victory I was still to achieve. The team worked selflessly and committed all week and today we had to top the podium.”
Asked if he now considered himself to be the fastest sprinter in the world, Cavendish was unequivocal.
“When you have a team like I have, it’s impossible not to be the best,” he added. “That was my aim, to come here and win a stage and now I’m glad I can come here and pay the team back.”
Schumacher, who won the fourth stage time trial to take the yellow jersey on Tuesday, had to ask his team to work throughout the day after a three-man break built an early lead before being caught in the closing kilometres.
But the Gerolsteiner rider admits it will be a challenge to keep the coveted tunic when the race heads through the hilly Massif Central towards the first mountains stages in the Pyrenees this weekend.
“It was a long stage but the weather was nice and there were a lot of supporters, so it was great to enjoy this first day in the yellow jersey,” Schumacher said. “We want to defend the jersey for sure. If we can keep it tomorrow (Thursday) then we can hold it for another few days, but we have to see how the legs are.
“The sixth stage is the first in the (medium) mountains, with an uphill finish and all the favourites are sure to be there. But we’ll be trying.”
In a thrilling finish the sprinters only caught French champion Nicolas Vogondy in the final 100m after he had broke free of Florent Brard and Lilian Jegou inside the last 2000 metres.
By the 33km mark of the race’s longest stage the French trio took their advantage to 8: 15. But with the sprinters hungry for an elusive bunch sprint, their bid to reach the finish unhindered appeared doomed.
Gerolsteiner initiated the chase and were joined by Hushovd’s Credit Agricole team, and the Milram team of Zabel. The gap steadily closed, although it took a massive effort from Columbia in the closing kilometres to catch Vogondy, who, agonisingly for him, looked over his shoulder to see the sprinters bearing down.
“All I needed was another 100 metres and I would have won,” said Vogondy, the French national road champion. “I saw the peloton chasing me down, but I just had nothing left. It’s just too hard to hold off the sprinters’ teams.”