Edvald Boasson Hagen came within a whisker of his third Tour de France stage win on the fifth day of action, but was edged into second place by Mark Cavendish after a flat-out finish in Marseille.
The Norwegian – who wrapped up a brace of victories in 2011 – worked his way into contention as the 228.5km trek from Cagnes-sur-Mer reached its conclusion, and despite latching onto Cavendish’s wheel on the closing straight, he couldn’t round the Manxman who battled on for the 24th Tour stage win of his career.
Peter Sagan took the remaining place on the podium, with all the main General Classification contenders present in a sizeable front group which ensured Boasson Hagen, Chris Froome and Richie Porte defended their sixth, seventh and eighth places respectively in the overall standings. Simon Gerrans remains three seconds ahead in the yellow jersey spot, with his Orica-GreenEDGE team-mates Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini occupying the nearest two places to him.
Tried and tested
The day had followed the tried and tested formula of a sprint stage with six riders attacking early and building a sizeable advantage as they headed in a south-westerly direction from the departure town.
At one point their lead stretched to over 12 minutes but Orica-GreenEDGE eventually stepped up the chase in the last 70km.
By then the day’s sole intermediate sprint had been contested, with Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) pipping Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Cavendish (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) in the tussle for seventh place, and their respective teams would all aid Orica-GreenEDGE as they tried to haul the break back in the closing stages.
Romain Sicard (Euskaltel) and Anthony Delaplace (Sojasun) had fallen back from the lead group on the day’s fourth categorised climb, leaving Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar), Kevin Reza (Europcar), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) with the unenviable task of evading the peloton.
It was a task that ultimately proved fruitless, with Lutsenko the final rider to be reeled back in in the final 4km.
By that point the peloton was flying, with several sprint teams trying to assert their authority on the front of the bunch. Lotto Belisol, Argos-Shimano and Cannondale all tried their hand as they swept into Marseille, but it was Omega Pharma – Quick-Step who proved the most effective on the day, peeling off in turn before Cavendish was thrust into the action.
Boasson Hagen had done brilliantly to follow Cavendish’s wheel right throughout a hectic run in, and although he couldn’t round his former team-mate, he battled on bravely and outpaced some of the world’s top sprinters to seal second spot on the day.
There was a large pile-up further back in the field, just as there had been 16km from home, but Team Sky emerged unscathed and will all live to fight another day as the race continues with another sprint-friendly stage on Thursday.
Froome full of praise
Speaking immediately after the stage, Chris Froome was happy to report a clean bill of health and was pleased to see Boasson Hagen right in the thick of the action.
He said: "It was a grippy day on the wheel but it’s another day to tick off and Edvald got the chance to stretch his legs in the final there and he came second to Cav which is no mean feat at all considering he doesn’t have a lead-out train with him or anything.
"We’re concentrating on the GC and our game-plan was to stay near the front and out of trouble – to try and stay ahead of most of the problems – but it seems most of the crashes these days are at the front so you have to stay awake at all times. We all managed to get through it though and we'll be good to go again on Thursday."
Sports Director Nicolas Portal also chose to heap praise on Boasson Hagen, but revealed there had been a worrying spate of flat tyres with around 60km to go which appeared to have been caused by tacks being thrown on the road.
He told us: "Edvald produced a great ride today. He was on his own but was really fast at the end there. To beat the likes of Greipel, Sagan and Degenkolb is very impressive and he's proved he's really strong.
"He could get another chance tomorrow but the wind could play an important role towards the end so we have to make sure Froomey is protected first and then see how things go.
"There were no other major problems today. Kosta [Siutsou] and Kiry [Kiryienka] both got blocked behind that last crash and had to unclip, but they didn't fall and that's as bad as it got for us at the end.
"Richie [Porte] and G [Thomas] both experienced flat tyres though, and we think they might have been down to people placing tacks on the road. They were in the tyres when we inspected them after the race, and a few other teams also experienced similar problems. That's a bit of a worry but thankfully nobody was hurt."