Team Sky's Mark Cavendish produced a quite brilliant display to win stage two of the Tour de France in Tournai.
The first sprint finish of the race came down to an absorbing battle between the fast men and it was the world champion who proved once again that he is the quickest around as he overhauled André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) in the final 200 yards.
Before then he had positioned himself with stunning precision, moving from wheel to wheel before getting in the ideal spot right behind Greipel.
There was still work to do on the flat-out drag race to the line, Cavendish coming through to edge out Greipel, with Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) in third.
It was the 21st Tour stage success of his career to move one behind fourth-placed Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade on the all-time list headed by Eddy Merckx with 34.
Cavendish said afterwards: “It wasn’t too technical but there was enough technicality to make it a bit chaotic with all the other riders there. Normally I’m out of the way in the front but today I could kind of freestyle.
“It wasn’t as windy as I thought it was going to be and that didn’t play as much of a factor. It’s been a good start to the race for the team. Brad stayed out of trouble and hopefully he can continue on towards yellow. We’re here to win the yellow jersey. I’m here to do what I did today.
“I’ve been on the back foot but I’ve been more relaxed than ever coming into this Tour de France as the pressure hasn’t been there for me to do anything. [A win] doesn’t give me any more confidence as it’s never easy to win a Tour de France stage, with a team or on your own. I just have to fight for everything that I do.”
It was his first Tour win in the world champion's rainbow bands and he added: "Every race since I've won this jersey I've wanted to show this jersey and show why I'm worthy to wear it.
"I really wanted to do it honour this year and that means winning wherever I can go.
"It's very, very special. Every day in training, every day in racing, maybe once every few minutes I look down, I see the rainbow bands and it gives me a great sense of pride.
"I have massive respect for this jersey, I have massive respect for every rider who has ever worn this jersey."
Reflecting on the team's bid to try and win the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins, Cavendish explained: "It was always going to be difficult to also win stages and if anything it made me more relaxed.
"In the past I always had a dedicated team to a sprinter. With a team I should win most of the time so there was always that pressure to win.
"I always say I wanted to make history. There are not many better ways to make history than by being part of a team winning the Tour de France with a British rider."
That was echoed by team-mate Eisel who said: "All the team had worked for Mark [earlier on]. It wasn’t just a case of me at the end. At the last moment he waited and waited before turning it on to win.
"This year he has won by himself on occasions. It is good to know that we can be flexible. He can do it himself and he didn’t need too many people with him at the very end. We just needed to get him into a decent position early and we know he is very strong!
"All the focus is for yellow. We are all working for Bradley and that is our most important goal. If Mark can win one or two stages during the race that’s fantastic but we are here to win the yellow jersey."
With the field finishing together the top of those overall standings remain unchanged - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) staying in the leader's yellow jersey, seven seconds ahead of Wiggins.
Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is third, with Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) still in fourth and in the young rider's jersey just ahead of Boasson Hagen.
Stage one winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) now tops the sprint standings by 15 points from Cavendish.
After the stage Sports Director Sean Yates summed up what was a superb performance by the world champion, in addition to another strong day for the team.
He said: “For the umpteenth time he’s proven that he’s the man to beat. He found the right wheel heading into the finish and you know if you give him half a chance and without bad luck, invariably he will strike.
“It was a tough finish today. We kept Bradley safe towards the front with Mark also up there. It was a finish typical of the first week of the Tour with all the GC guys up there with the sprinters.
“It was a perfect scenario for us as we have retained second place overall for Bradley and the guys are riding well together.”
Story of the day
The 207.5-kilometre stage from Vise had earlier unfolded in predictable fashion as a three-man breakaway comprising Christophe Kern (Europcar), Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Anthony Roux (FDJ-Big Mat) went away after 22km.
They had little chance of survival on a route made for the fast men of the peloton but they stayed clear long enough to take the first three places in the intermediate sprint which came 54.5km from the finish.
That left the first rider of the peloton chasing 13 points and Cavendish crossed behind former HTC-Highroad team-mates Goss and Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) to claim nine points.
The gap to the break was kept to under three minutes and Roux launched a solo attack as his two fellow escapees were swept up with around 25km to go on a straight run-in into Tournai.
With a full-speed peloton in pursuit, Roux was caught with just under 15km remaining.
The sprinters' teams lined up, while reigning champion Cadel Evans' BMC Racing squad were also prominent at the front, with Wiggins staying out of trouble alongside.
Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), one of Cavendish's sprint rivals, was at the back of the peloton due to illness.
The tempo was high as the peloton negotiated a technical and tight conclusion, including two roundabouts and a narrowing section of road.
Lotto-Belisol moved to the front with 1.5km to go, but all the main protagonists were present as Cavendish displayed great bike-handling skills as he began to freestyle from wheel-to-wheel in the finale before timing his move to perfection.
Next up is Tuesday's 197km third stage from Orchies to Boulougne-sur-Mer which features a punishing six categorised climbs in the final 70km.