Mark Cavendish timed his stealth sprint to perfection to open his 2011 Tour de France account on a crash-filled stage five from Carhaix to Cap Frehel.
The 26-year-old, without the HTC-Highroad train to deliver him to the finish, launched his bid from the wheel of Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who registered a top five finish of his own.
And Cavendish, who was disqualified from the intermediate sprint on stage three before finishing fifth in the finale, answered his critics by beating stage one winner Philippe Gilbert to the line.
The Manx Missile joins Charles Pelissier, René Le Greves and Jacques Anquetil on 16 Tour de France stage wins to rise to ninth on the all-time list.
“I’m just passionate about my sport, I love to win and the team gave it everything today to make sure I could get to the line first,” said Cavendish.
“There are a lot of difficult finishes this year and not so many bunch sprints, so I had to make sure I got this one, I had to be resilient.
“On top of that I’ve had some difficult starts to the big Tours, that was only different in 2009, but that’s just my character, not something to get obsessed with.
“We put every other race on the backfoot to be sure we’re in top condition for the Tour and that paid off today, that’s why we win.”
The lumpy terrain and narrow Brittany roads made for a nervous peloton and Jarez Brajkovic retired as the 2011 Tour’s first major casualty, while Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador, Robert Gesink, Nicki Sorensen, Yaroslav Popovych and Chris Horner also hit the deck.
Wiggins was the first big name to crash – but the British national champion, fourth in 2009, was quickly back to his bike.
Breakaway rider Sebastien Turgot took maximum points at the intermediate sprint ahead of Tristan Valentin, Jose Gutierrez and Anthony Delaplace, before Boonen led the peloton over the line, in the process cutting across the line of Cavendish.
That prompted the commissaires to declassify Boonen, along with Jose Joaquin Rojas, meaning Gilbert is now the green jersey holder. Cadel Evans, winner on the Mur-de-Bretagne, tops the King of the Mountains classification.
Boonen’s wayward sprinting was temporarily forgotten when, with 90km remaining, Radioshack leader Brajkovic hit the deck hard and, after receiving medical attention at the roadside, was stretchered into the back of an ambulance.
Contador was the next general classification contender to fall; the normally mild-mannered Spaniard throwing his damaged bike to the grass verge before, paced by three SaxoBank Sungard team-mates in a group that also included a bloodied Gesink, fighting back to the peloton.
Sorensen took the most spectacular tumble when a motorbike, overtaking on the crash verge, caught the Danish national champion’s handlebars and threw him to the verge while the motorbike continued on towing the bicycle.
Radioshack duo Popovych and Horner were next, while former world champion Boonen also required treatment before gingerly pedalling on, eventually finishing 13 minutes behind Cavendish with team-mate Addy Engels but within the time limit.
The four-man break was swept up as the race passed through five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault’s birthplace, Yffiniac, before Jeremy Roy, prominent throughout the first week, and Thomas Voeckler, who wore yellow in 2004, launched their own attack, aided by the final 30km’s tight, twisting roads.
That saw HTC-Highroad move to the front of the chasing bunch – but the technical run-in and uphill finish looked to have put paid to the pure sprinters’ efforts.
Voeckler, who had outlasted Roy, saw his brave bid for glory ended as the peloton juggernaut steamed under the flamme rouge and Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson-Hagen attacked, with Cavendish absent and HTC-Highroad seemingly teeing up Paris-Roubaix winner Matthew Goss.
Hushovd countered Boasson-Hagen’s move before Gilbert thundered up the long drag to the line – only for Cavendish to make his move from nowhere, outpacing Belgian national champion Gilbert, who held off Rojas for second.
1. Mark Cavendish (GBR/HTC-Highroad) – 3:38:32
2. Philippe Gilbert (BEL/Omega Pharma-Lotto) – same time
3. Jose Joaquin Rojas (SPA/Movistar)
4. Tony Gallopin (FRA/Cofidis)
5. Geraint Thomas (GBR/Team Sky)
6. Andre Greipel (GER/Omega Pharma-Lotto)
7. Sebastien Hinault (FRA/Ag2r La Mondiale)
8. William Bonnet (FRA/FDJ)
9. Daniel Oss (ITA/Liquigas-Cannondale)
10. Thor Hushovd (NOR/Garmin-Cervelo)
18. Bradley Wiggins (GBR/Team Sky) – same time
40. David Millar (GBR/Garmin-Cervelo)
104. Ben Swift (GBR/Team Sky)
1. Thor Hushovd (NOR/Garmin-Cervelo) 17h 36m 57s
2. Cadel Evans (AUS/BMC) +1″
3. Frank Schleck (LUX/Leopard-Trek) +4″
4. David Millar (GBR/Garmin-Cervelo) +8″
5. Andreas Kloden (AUS/Radioshack) +10″
6. Bradley Wiggins (GBR/Team Sky) same time
7. Geraint Thomas (GBR/Team Sky) +12″
8. Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR/Team Sky) same time
9. Andy Schleck (LUX/Leopard-Trek) same time
10. Jakob Fuglsang (DEN/Leopard-Trek) same time
46. Ben Swift (GBR/Team Sky) +2m 06s
81. Mark Cavendish (GBR/HTC-Highroad) 4m 22s
1. Philippe Gilbert (BEL/Omega Pharma-Lotto) – 120 points
2. Jose Joaquin Rojas (SPA/Movistar) – 112 pts
3. Cadel Evans (AUS/Australia) – 90 pts
4. Mark Cavendish (GBR/HTC-Highroad) – 84 pts
5. Thor Hushovd (NOR/Garmin-Cervelo) – 82 pts
Full results on letour.fr