Mark Cavendish won Friday's marathon 218-kilometer race from Le Mans to Châteauroux, the last sprinter's stage before the race enters the

2011 Tour de France, stage 7: Mark Cavendish win
 Cavendish had a successful return to the scene of his first Tour stage win. AFP Photo

Mark Cavendish won Friday’s marathon 218-kilometer stage 7 from Le Mans to Châteauroux at the 2011 Tour de France, the last sprinter’s stage before the race enters the Massif Central this weekend.

It was the HTC-Highroad rider’s 17th Tour stage win and came in the same city where he won his first Tour stage, in 2008.

Several GC contenders, including RadioShack’s Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, were caught out by a large crash and lost time. Horner was the day’s last finisher, 12:41 behind Cavendish; Leipheimer lost 3:06. Team Sky’s GC hope Bradley Wiggins left the race with a collarbone break from that crash.

Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) finished in the lead group to retain his jersey, with a one-second advantage over BMC’s Cadel Evans.

After the race, Cavendish praised his teammates at length, and talked about how proud he was “to be able to share the Tour de France with them.”

“With 15km to go, they went super hard. They just went until they couldn’t go any more.”

Cavendish said his team’s well-drilled discipline doesn’t come through practice, “because we don’t practice.”

“It’s discipline through trust, through knowing each other, working together, not saying a thing. I’m super lucky I can share the experience with these guys. I don’t have to do anything. They delivered me with to 150 meters to go. Yeah it’s their job, but there’s a passion behind it. There always has been. That’s what makes me so proud.”

Long, flat, wet and windy

Friday’s stage was one of the flattest of this Tour and a field sprint was all but guaranteed. There were no categorized climbs. Oddly, the day’s intermediate sprint came late on the stage, with just 25km remaining. Early rain gave way to partly sunny conditions later in the day.

The requisite early breakaway

Almost from Kilometer Zero, a four-man break formed off the front. The best placed of the four was FdJ’s Gianni Meersman, who started the day in 56th, 3:22 behind Hushovd. His teammate Mickael Delage also joined in, along with Sau-Sijasun’s Yannick Talabardon and Euskadi-Euskaltel’s Pablo Urtasun Perez.

The four had almost a five-minute gap just 12 kilometers into the race, and 6:25 by the 25km mark.

Garmin-Cervelo led the peloton at a stately pace on this long day, keeping the break’s gap manageable, trimming it to under four minutes with 60km to go. The day was too much for Quick Step’s Tom Boonen, however, who climbed into a team car and departed due to the lingering effects of his stage 5 crash.

Crash

As the pace picked up approaching the intermediate sprint a crash brought down about 20 riders, including Wiggins, who left the race with a suspected broken collarbone. Alexander Vinokourov, Tyler Farrar and Chris Horner were among those who went down but continued.

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The peloton had broke into two big groups separated by over a minute, with Levi Leipheimer, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Ryder Hesjedal among those stuck in the chase group a minute and a half back, desperate to regain contact before the end. Horner was even farther back. Hushovd and most of the major sprinters were in the front chase group, which was soon closing on the four leaders under pressure from Leopard-Trek and then HTC on the front.

The four-man break was finally caught with 12km to go.

HTC took firm control of the front into the final kilometers, with Petacchi sitting behind Cavendish and Hushovd and teammate Julian Dean hovering just behind. The HTC train would not be denied, however, and Cavendish started an early sprint and held off Petacchi and Greipel at the line.

Horner was at least two minutes behind the diminished peloton, which HTC was driving toward the intermediate sprint line.

Delage grabbed the first-place intermediate points. In the peloton, HTC put on a show of force to ensure Cavendish grabbed the field sprint for fifth place. Movistar’s Rojas was just behind him, gaining the point he needed to pass Philippe Gilbert for the points competition lead.

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Up next

Saturday’s stage 8 heads into the hilly terrain of the Massif Central with a summit finish at Super-Besse. The finale is preceded by the Cat. 2 Col de la Croix St. Robert (6.2km at a 6.2-percent average grade), followed by 19km of winding back roads before the last climb begins in the town of Besse.

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