Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) took his fourth victory in this year's Tour de France to boost his career total to 19 when he sprinted home half a bike length ahead of Garmin-Cervélo's Tyler Farrar with Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) in third.
Led out perfectly by his HTC teammates in what was a technical finish in Montpellier, Cavendish started his sprint from 200 meters out, his initial surge carrying him clear of his rivals and proving decisive. Hulking Liquigas sprinter Daniel Oss was on the Briton's wheel, but the youngster faded and it was Farrar, who surged through from third back, who pressed Cavendish closest.
"I can't let the guys down when they ride like that," said Cavendish, who became the first rider in history to win four stages in four consecutive Tours. "It was incredible, the guys rode hard all day. The first half we worked with Europcar, who were riding really strongly, and then the second half we were on our own. The guys are motorbikes.
"I thought they might be a bit tired after waiting for me and pulling like they did yesterday, but the fact that we got through yesterday makes it even more gratifying that we won here. It was a difficult finish, a technical finish, incredibly difficult with the wind. We were fighting with the GC riders, with Cadel Evans, with the Schleck brothers, with Alberto Contador, with Ivan Basso in the final kilometers. It's really not normal. But the guys kept together and I'm so, so proud of them," said Cavendish.
Five riders featured in the break of the day. Quick Step's Niki Terpstra was the last of them to be pulled back, with just 3km remaining as Gilbert launched a late attack. Although he was quickly joined by FDJ's Anthony Roux and Vacansoleil's Marco Marcato, the Belgian champion never got out of range of the fast-moving peloton and was reeled back before the 2km banner.
Lampre, Sky and Garmin all took turns on the front of the bunch in the next kilometer, but HTC regained pole position just inside the final kilometer, where Matt Goss's turn of speed set Renshaw and Cavendish up perfectly for the final run to the line. Renshaw then kept everyone behind lined out, ensuring Cavendish was exactly where he wanted to be when he made his final acceleration down the right-hand barriers.
Having already beaten green jersey rivals José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) in the stage's intermediate sprint, Cavendish extended his lead in the points competition to 37 points over Rojas going into Monday's rest day, with Gilbert now some distance behind this pair.
"I guess things worked out quite well for us today with the win and the points at that intermediate sprint," said Renshaw. "But it's not in the bag. Gilbert is really strong and we've got a stage into Gap that's perfect for him."
There was no notable change in the overall standings, with Thomas Voeckler retaining the yellow jersey for another day and his Europcar team able to have a relatively easy stage going into Monday's rest day. The Frenchman, though, is playing down his chances of contending for the overall title in Paris.
"I can't win the Tour. I will give all I can to keep the jersey, but when I look at the guys who are just behind me and when I look at the stages that are ahead I don't know how I could win," Voeckler told ITV.
A break from the gun
Once again an escape group formed very early on. Mickael Delage (FDJ) jumped the very second the flag dropped to start the stage. He was soon joined by Terpstra, Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun).
The quintet's advantage rose rapidly with the bunch initially happy to take things easy after a series of tough stages through the Pyrenees. But it wasn't long before HTC's Lars Bak and Danny Pate went to work to hold that gap at a very catch-able three minutes or so, helped by Voeckler's Europcar team.
From that point on, the stage progressed in a relatively straightforward fashion, although Saxo Bank leader Alberto Contador later explained that the strong winds had been a considerable complicating factor. "It might have seemed like an easy day on the TV, but it was complicated. There was a lot of tension, there were points where we were doing 70km/h with a tailwind, and there were constant changes of direction," said the Spaniard. "It was a day of real tension and stress."
Duelling at the intermediate sprint
The stage really started to come to life at the day's intermediate sprint in Montagnac with 46km remaining. In the breakaway, Dumoulin and Delage gave it everything, Delage narrowly taking the decision. A couple minutes later, HTC set up Cavendish down the right-hand side of the road, and he held off Rojas and Gilbert to take sixth place. HTC then returned to setting the pace on the front of the bunch, with Leopard-Trek and BMC also prominent as they kept their leaders well protected.
The breakaways continued to work well together until Ignatiev attacked with 22km remaining. Terpstra was the only rider to respond. As these two pressed on, the three French riders quickly dropped back towards the peloton.
The two leaders had just 25 seconds in hand on the HTC-led bunch with 10km left. This gap was being whittled away when Terpstra decided to go it alone with 6.5km to the line. The many twists in the road as it approached Montpellier enabled Terpstra to keep his lead at around a dozen seconds or so until well inside the final 5km.
Gilbert's attack from 3.2km out finally brought an end to Terpstra's offensive. But, after working so hard all day for their sprinter, there was no way HTC's train was going to be knocked off course at that late stage.
Cavendish summed the day up perfectly when he explained: "I cross the finish line first – I have done it 19 times – but there's only one person who can do that. Today two of my team-mates rode for 190km and the rest delivered me to the line. I have an incredible bunch of guys. The commitment of those guys is amazing. I'm incredibly lucky."
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com