Tour de France - Cavendish wins chaotic stage five
Britain's Mark Cavendish came from behind to win stage five of the Tour de France on a day punctuated by high profile crashes.
The HTC sprinter looked out of contention on the closing straight of the 164.5km stage from Carhaix to Cap Frehel in Brittany but a late surge saw Cavendish power past Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and green jersey Jose Rojas (Movistar) to take the 16th Tour victory of his career.
Earlier in the stage, reigning champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) and GC rival Robert Gesink (Rabobank) were both involved in separate incidents in the peloton - although both riders recovered to finish safely in the peloton.
But the news was less good for Slovenia's Janez Brajkovic, the RadioShack team leader, who was forced out of the race after suffering a heavy fall 92km from the finish.
Former Tour green jersey winner Tom Boonen also crashed during a nervous day through the hilly Breton countryside. Bloodied and bruised, the Belgian finished the stage alongside Quick Step team-mate Addy Engels more than 13 minutes off the pace.
A group of four riders - three Frenchman and a Spaniard - broke away soon after an edgy start and quickly built up a lead of five minutes over the pursuing peloton.
But moments after the intermediate sprint at Goudelin the race was torn apart by a series of crashes and spills. First, a handful of riders including Britain's Bradley Wiggins (Sky) were held up in a minor incident, before both Gesink and Brajkovic hit the deck at top speed after an apparently touch of wheels.
With Dutch youngster Gesink dusting himself down and Brajkovic, the 2010 winner of the Criterium du Dauphine, receiving medical attention on the road, another crash occurred in the peloton, this time including the three-time champion Contador.
Moments after Contador had been paced back into the peloton, his team-mate Nicki Sorensen was involved in a collision with a race motorcycle which resulted in the Dane being upended into a grass verge and the rider of the offending vehicle reportedly being expelled from the Tour by race director Christian Prudhomme.
While the carnage unfolded, the Garmin-Cervelo team of yellow jersey Thor Hushovd increased the pace on the front of the peloton in a bid to keep their man out of trouble. As a result, the lead of the four escapees plummeted to just 45 seconds.
With order returning to the bunch, the gap once again increased - until the mini pile-up involving Boonen occurred with 60km left to ride. The Belgian sprinter tasted the tarmac with a number of team-mates towards the back of the bunch. Compatriot Gert Steegmans needed treatment but soon continued on his way, while Boonen looked all but certain to throw in the towel.
But the three-time Paris-Roubaix winner got back on his bike and continued to race - despite a large gash to his hip and multiple cuts to his elbows and knees. Boonen, who also looked to have injured a shoulder, was later joined by team-mate Engels, the pair rolling home 13:08 down on winner Cavendish.
The four leaders were caught moments before a counter attack from French pair Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ). The duo built up a lead of just over a minute but were eventually caught with 2km to spare, despite a late rally from Voeckler.
In the bunch sprint, Cavendish lost his HTC train early on after Matthew Goss slowed and Tony Martin was left isolated. Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen took advantage of the uncertainty to launch a long attack from under the one-to-go banner. But the Sky rider was soon caught by the likes of Gilbert, Hushovd and Rojas.
Cavendish's chances looked to have vanished when he was placed 10 or so riders back with just 200m remaining - but a supreme display of speed and power saw the Manxman ghost past his rivals and break his Tour duck for 2011.
"I had my jump and acceleration today but it was proper hard," Cavendish said. "My legs had gone but I didn't give up and I'm really happy with the win."
On the numerous uphill and technical finishes in this year's race, the HTC rider was quick to voice his opinion. "We usually dominate the sprints on the Tour because we have the best team so the Tour organisers this year have had to make it harder for us this year."
There was more good news for Cavendish at the finish when race commissaires announced the disqualification of both Boonen and Rojas from the intermediate sprint after the pair appeared to box their HTC rival out of contention by changing their race line.
As a result, Gilbert now leads Rojas by 120 points to 112 points in the green jersey competition, with Cavendish moving up to fourth with 84 points.
The Tour continues on Thursday with the race's longest stage - a 227km hilly trek from Dinan to Lisieux.