MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Mark Cavendish’s love affair with the Tour de France continued as the Briton moved closer to the all-time stage-win record with a perfect sprint finish on Wednesday.
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider was led out by his team mates in the finale of the 228.5-km fifth stage from Cagnes-sur-Mer and delivered in the home straight to beat Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen and Slovakian Peter Sagan.
Cavendish, who collected his 24th Tour stage win, is now 10 shy of Belgian Eddy Merckx’s record.
Wednesday’s victory was not the hardest as Cavendish, who “changed teams because (he) wanted to do well on the Tour de France,” benefited from a perfectly-oiled team machine.
“To be fair today the sprint wasn’t too difficult for me. I didn’t do anything; if I’d have lost today I would have let the guys down,” the Manxman told a news conference.
“(Lead-out rider) Gert (Steegmans) went with such speed that I just followed the speed he delivered me at.”
Cavendish, who has shrugged off a bout of bronchitis, also had France’s Sylvain Chavanel and German Tony Martin to thank after both spent long stretches at the front of the peloton to catch the early breakaway riders with just under five kilometers left.
“I‘m a lot better but still not 100 percent after being ill last week but you know we had to give everything to try and win. We put a lot of planning into it,” said Cavendish who, like he did in 2008, 2010 and 2011, had to wait until the fifth stage to win.
“We are very happy, we had targeted this stage. A lot of good sprinters won in Marseille and Mark, who loves the history of cycling, wanted to have his name associated with Marseille,” Omega Pharma-Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere told reporters.
There is probably more to come for Cavendish but the Briton has too much respect for the Tour to brag about it.
“You have to show the Tour de France the respect it deserves,” he said. “Obviously I aim to win a lot of stages each year.”
Cavendish moved up to second in the points classification and is now on 76 points with Sagan first on 111.
One of the highlights of Cavendish’s week came on Tuesday when he met 84-year-old former French sprinter Andre Darrigade, who won 22 Tour stages between 1953 and 1965.
“I really liked the similarities (between us) despite the 60-year difference. It made my day yesterday,” said Cavendish.
Australian Simon Gerrans retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey by finishing in the main bunch, which was thrown into chaos when France’s Nacer Bouhanni crashed in the final meters and a host of riders followed.
American Tejay van Garderen, who won the white jersey for the best young rider and had general classification ambitions despite being Cadel Evans’s lieutenant at BMC, hit the deck.
“It was just a stupid crash. I was grabbing a bottle from Steve (Morabito) and then we hit this left corner and people hit the brakes pretty hard and I had one hand on the bars (and) lost control,” Van Garderen told reporters.
“Completely my fault, just a lack of focus, but nothing bad. Just a couple more cuts but no broken bones.”
Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck, fourth in last year’s race, also crashed, and suffered some bruising, according to his Lotto-Belisol team.
Spain’s Alberto Contador and Britain’s Chris Froome, the top two contenders, crossed the finish line unscathed as the top positions in the overall standings remained unchanged.
Froome is seventh, three seconds behind Gerrans with Contador in 11th place, nine seconds off the pace.
Thursday’s sixth stage is a 176.5-km ride from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.
Editing by Clare Fallon