After a carnage-filled afternoon along the craggy coast of Brittany, Mark Cavendish, a Briton racing for the HTC-Highroad team, reclaimed his status as one of the fastest men on two wheels after a frustrating start to the 2011 Tour de France.
Although Cavendish, the winner of 15 stages in previous Tours, had been favored to do well this year in the early stages, which have taken place across flat countryside that favors sprint specialists, he had yet to win a stage or an intermediate sprint. He was even disqualified from one intermediate sprint for what was deemed an illegal push.
But Wednesday, Cavendish surged past at least a dozen riders in the final yards to win by the length of a bicycle, ahead of Philippe Gilbert, a Belgian racing for Omega-Lotto.
“I had my jump and acceleration today, but it was proper hard,” Cavendish told Eurosport television. “My legs had gone, but I didn’t give up and I’m really happy with the win.”
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Thor Hushovd of Garmin-Cervelo, a rangy Norwegian who has been in the thick of the action at every stage, kept his hold on the overall leader’s yellow jersey, with an advantage of a second over Cadel Evans of BMC, the Australian who won the fourth stage Tuesday.
For some riders, merely finishing the afternoon on their bicycles was a minor victory Wednesday. For a while, it looked as if they were participating in an amateur cyclo-cross rather than a professional road race. There were roughly a dozen crashes, some of them affecting race favorites like Alberto Contador, the defending champion.
Contador, with the Saxo Bank-Sungard team, was lucky, his bicycle bearing the brunt of the fall. Unlike in the opening stage, when Contador was tangled up in a crash that cost him precious time, he recovered quickly and managed to maintain his current time in the overall standings,1:42 behind Hushovd.
More serious was a crash that ended the Tour of Janez Brajkovic, a Slovenian rider with Radioshack, who sustained head injuries and a broken collarbone. Later, Tom Boonen, a Belgian with Quick Step, shredded his jersey and appeared to injure his collarbone in a crash that split the field of riders, known as the peloton, in two.
“It’s a hard day,” the RadioShack team director, Alain Galopin, told Reuters. “But there’s nothing you can do. It’s the Tour de France; it’s a lottery. Almost everybody crashed.”
Some of the crashes were more comical than serious, like the slow-motion affair that occurred when several riders appeared to be unable to get their feet off the pedals for balance as the peloton slowed.
In another mishap, Nicki Sorensen, a Danish teammate of Contador, went flying into the grass when his handlebars were clipped by a Tour motorcycle that tried to pass as the road narrowed, a tactic perhaps better suited to the Peripherique of Paris at rush hour than to the world’s most prestigious bicycle race. As Sorensen rose, he looked around in vain for his bicycle, which had continued along the road, headless horseman-style, still attached to the motorcycle.
With all the spills in the peloton, the Garmin-Cervelo team again looked smart, after winning the team time trial in Stage 2 and producing the winner of Stage 3, Tyler Farrar.
In Stage 5, the Garmin-Cervelo riders set the pace at the front of the peloton for much of the afternoon, keeping them out of harm’s way and challenging most of the rest of the riders to scramble for position behind them. At the end, they kept Hushovd in position for a strong finish.
The race began in languid fashion, even though it was over a relatively short course: 102 miles through gently rolling terrain, from Carhaix in central Brittany to Cap Frehel on the Cotes d’Armor, near St. Malo.