HTC-Columbia's British superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish got his fist win of this year's Tour de France on Thursday, covering 117 miles from Épernay to Montargis in four hours and 30 minutes. The pancake-flat route of Stage 5 saw no change to the standings as the contenders or the overall finished in the main bunch on another day made for the sprinters.
Cavendish, who won six stages at last year's Tour but has struggled with health and fitness issues this season, came off teammate Mark Renshaw's wheel in the closing meters and accelerated away from the rest of the bunch, winning by a bike length over German Gerald Ciolek of Team Milram. Cervelo Test Team's Thor Hushovd, wearing the green jersey of the Tour's points leader, finished fifth, three spots ahead of Alessandro Petacchi, his nearest rival in the points competition. American Tyler Farrar (read my interview here), riding with a broken wrist, finished 10th after a strong display by his Garmin-Transitions team to control the finale.
Though Cavendish was by far the best sprinter in last year's Tour de France, Hushovd came away with the green jersey after some tactical riding and, more importantly, an official complaint about unsafe riding that saw Cavendish stripped of his points from Stage 14. So far this year, Hushovd has been upstaged by resurgent Italian veteran Petacchi's two stage wins, though the Norwegian again leads the green jersey competition thanks to consistently high placings—albeit without a stage win.
After dental surgery and a subsequent complications disrupted his off season and his early-season training, Cavendish has been a shadow of the rider who dominated the 2009 season. Today's win was just his fifth of 2010—not at all bad, but far below his standards. After finishing out of the points in the Tour's first sprint stage due to crash and finishing an unspectacular 12th yesterday, Cavendish is all but out of the points competition. But this victory, dominant as it was and against most of the world's best sprinters, should be the confidence boost he needs in the hunt for stage wins from here on out.
Tomorrow's stage will be the longest of this year's Tour, at 141 miles. It will also be the last flat, sprinter-friendly day until Stage 11, as the Tour turns toward the Alps this weekend. Look for Cavendish's HTC-Columbia teammates to control things tomorrow as he tries to build on today's win.