Mark Cavendish produced another masterclass to grab his second Tour de France stage win in three days.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep rider edged out Belgian Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Fenix and Team Arkea-Samsic’s French rider Nacer Bouhani in a sprint to the finish at Chateauroux on Thursday.
“It seems like every time we finish here there's a different line-up,” Cavendish said after the 106.4-kilometre stage. His success has now come after a barren five-year spell on the Tour.
“In 2008 it was uphill a bit, I think it was further down the road. 2011 it was short – still uphill a bit ... It's been 10 years since I last won here. It's pretty special.
“Actually in pretty similar fashion today – we were talking about what to do in the final because there are so many strong sprint teams here. To take it on is a big ask, you always get swamped at the finish by those big teams.
“The wind was coming from the left and Michael [Matthews of Team BikeExchange] left the left side for me to go but I wanted just a split second longer in the wheels before I went so I had to switch trains and go from there.
“You see the guys – you see how much they pulled there. The world champion, Julian Alaphilippe, just burying himself in the last kilometre. It's something special. I'm buzzing.”
Cavendish, 36, completed his third stage win at Chateauroux 13 years after his first in the city.
It also took his overall stage victories in the Grand Tour to 32 and he is now two wins behind Eddy Merckx's all-time Tour de France stage record. But he played down the significance of the impending record.
“I'm not thinking about anything,” he said when asked of the record. “I just won a stage of the Tour de France, if that was my first stage or my 32nd stage, I've just won a stage of the Tour.
“That's what people work their whole lives for, I'm very happy. If I'm good enough to win 50, then I'm good enough to win 50. If I'm not good enough to win again, so be it.”
There was no change in the general classification with Mathieu van der Poel retaining the yellow jersey.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider maintained his eight-second lead over UAE Team Emirates star and defending champion Tadej Pogacar, after they both finished safely in the bunch.
“It was okay. The start was hard with a dangerous move getting away at the beginning of the stage. It was pretty okay towards the finish,” Van der Poel said.
“I did what I could in the lead out, but I think they lost my wheel in the last corner, so I had wait and get back to them. I think we were a bit far, but we managed to set up the train really well.
“Cavendish is just the fastest man. We'll try again. [Tomorrow] will be a hard pedal, I think. The gaps are not too big so for sure some guys will go for the overall. We'll see what happens tomorrow.”
Friday’s gruelling 249.1km stage from Vierzon to Le Creusot, with over 3,000m of climbing, is the longest stage of the 2021 Tour de France.
1. Mark Cavendish (GBR) Deceuninck-QuickStep 3:17:36
2. Jasper Philipsen (BEL) Alpecin-Fenix same time
3. Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) Team Arkea-Samsic s.t
4. Arnaud Demare (FRA) Groupama-FDJ s.t
5. Peter Sagan (SVK) Bora-Hansgrohe s.t
1. Mathieu van der Poel (NED) Alpecin-Fenix 20:09:17
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLV) UAE Team Emirates 0:0:08
3. Wout Van Aert (BEL) Jumbo-Visma 0:0:30
4. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) Deceuninck-QuickStep 0:0:48
5. Alexey Lutsenko (KAZ) Astana-Premier Tech 0:01:21