Cavendish wins fifth stage at Tour de France

Mark Cavendish led his San Luis Obispo-based Team HTC-Columbia to victory at Thursday’s fifth stage of the Tour de France, showing the powerful sprint form that made him a force in the event last year.

Unlike his performance on Wednesday, when Cavendish could not overcome Italian Alessandro Petacchi in a sprint to the finish, Cavendish expertly used the lead of teammate Mark Renshaw to remain in the front of the field until he broke free within the final meters and burst his way across the finish line.

The 25-year-old Briton, who won six stages last year and four in 2008, thrust his arms skyward and hugged teammates in the winner’s circle after beating Gerald Ciolek of Germany and Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen.

The victory marked the first for Team HTC in this year’s Tour, and it came on the mostly flat 116-mile trek from Epernay to Montargis. Cavendish finished with a time of 4 hours, 30 minutes, 50 seconds.

Fabian Cancellara retained the leader’s yellow jersey, and the overall standings didn’t change. Defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain was 19th in the stage, and seven-time tour winner Lance Armstrong 30th.

Among the top contenders behind Cancellara, Cadel Evans of Australia holds third place, 39 seconds back, and last year’s runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg is sixth, 1:09 back. Contador is ninth, 1:40 back, and American Armstrong is 2:30 back in 18th.

Cavendish broke down in tears after Thursday’s stage. He had been roundly criticized in the European press after Wednesday’s failure to win.

“It’s incredible, it’s been a long time,” said Cavendish of his stage win. “Yesterday wasn’t that great for us. I let the guys down.”

Breaking down during a TV interview, after holding his face in his hands, Cavendish admitted the “pressure was immense,” said he had “been through a helluva lot” and denied that he had thrown his bike down a day earlier.“I just want to thank all the people who supported me,” he added.

Rolf Aldag, manager of Team HTC’s men’s squad, said in an interview with Versus television that the sprint competition is better in this year’s tour, and that his group needed to be even more strategic in its approach to helping Cavendish win.

A key factor for Team HTC this year is the absence of George Hincapie. The American rode for HTC last year, and was a critical leader on the sprint stages. Hincapie amicably separated from HTC after last season to join BMC, another American team.

As a member of Team HTC, Cavendish has trained in San Luis Obispo County and has competed in the Tour of California. He captured a stage win in that race last year, sprinting to victory in a finish in downtown Paso Robles.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.