Mark Cavendish sprinted to his first Tour de France victory in almost two years and 26th in all on stage seven to Fougeres yesterday.
“Cav is back” declared the French television commentators after the Manxman burst to victory on the 190.5-kilometres route from Livarot after two near-misses in this year’s race.
Many hoped that Cavendish’s 26th Tour win would have come in Harrogate, his mother’s hometown, on the opening stage of the 2014 Tour, but he crashed out.
His Etixx-QuickStep squad floundered in the finishing straight last Sunday in Zeeland and, on Wednesday in Amiens, the Manxman was third, conceding Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) were simply faster.
The pressure was increasing on Cavendish, who is out of contract with Belgian squad Etixx-QuickStep at the end of the year, as yesterday was one of the final opportunities for the pure sprinters, given the challenging nature of the route.
But the 30-year-old delivered his first win since the 2013 Tour to move two behind Bernard Hinault’s tally of stage wins. The Frenchman has 28, second only to Eddy Merckx’s record tally of 34.
Chris Froome began the day in his Team Sky kit, leaving the maillot jaune vacant after Tony Martin’s Tour-ending crash on Thursday.
The Team Sky leader was 12 seconds behind Martin after the sixth stage, but Martin’s withdrawal gave the Briton the race lead.
Prior to the stage, Froome said: “Out of respect for Tony I would never have worn it in any case.
“That’s not the way to get the yellow jersey, due to someone else’s misfortunes, but Tony finished yesterday.
“I was second on the GC (general classification) so there was no way to wear it.”
Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) consolidated his lead in the King of the Mountains competition as part of the day’s five-man breakaway.
The last remnants of the escape was swept up 12km from the finish and Martin would normally come into prominence, dragging along the peloton. With Martin watching from his hospital bed in Hamburg after undergoing surgery on his fractured collarbone, Cavendish had to adapt.
John Degenkolb’s Giant-Alpecin squad and Alexander Kristoff’s Katusha team were prominent as the peloton passed 3km to go and Arnaud Demare’s FDJ team joined them.
A right-hand corner 900m from the line spread out the field and Cavendish sat behind Kristoff, with Greipel on his wheel.
The German was the first to launch his sprint, with Cavendish shadowing the move. Cavendish brushed off Sagan before going up Greipel’s inside to triumph.
Greipel was second and Sagan third, claiming enough bonus points to move into second place overall, 11 seconds behind Froome.
The Slovakian could try to assume the race lead on today’s eighth stage from Rennes, which finishes atop the Mur-de-Bretagne.
Cavendish has more opportunities to narrow the gap to Hinault in this year’s Tour.
The concluding stage in Paris on July 26, where Cavendish has won four times, will almost certainly finish in a sprint, while the 13th stage to Rodez and stage 15 to Valence are other, albeit slim, possibilities.
Asked the difference between winning and not earlier in this week, Cavendish said: “I just waited a little longer. I was more patient, so I could use my speed at the end there.”
It is the third win for Etixx-QuickStep at the Tour.
“I’ve waited a week for this win personally,” Cavendish said. “It’s just me that’s let them down. It would’ve been easy for them to save themselves for the other days.
“I’m super happy. It’s a shame Tony’s not here. I dedicate the win to him.”
Cavendish celebrated the win with pregnant wife Peta and three-year-old daughter Delilah.
“She [Delilah] was angry I didn’t get the flowers in the last days. Today she’s happy,” he added.