Britain's Mark Cavendish failed to take a widely expected second straight stage victory following a crash in the final hour of racing and was forced instead to settle for fourth place behind the German winner André Greipel in Montpellier.
With his National Champion's jersey ripped and blackened with road grime, Cavendish sped into the final kilometre in the middle of the main pack of sprinters. Clearly in danger of being blocked, he accelerated through the front end of the bunch as the final surge for the line began. But after having to weave past a rider fading out of the sprint depleted Cavendish's energy reserves even further, the Briton's drive for the line sagged in the crucial last metres.
Even while Greipel was raising his arms in the air, Cavendish was already easing back, implicitly recognising that this time he was about to experience a rare sprint defeat. Although it is all too frequent for riders to touch wheels and go flying in the fraught, high-paced first week finales of the Tour, sitting at the foot of his team bus stairs – his default position for discussing defeats with the press – Cavendish said that on this occasion it was pure bad luck that he went down with around 35 kilometres to go.
"I came out a roundabout, it was tight coming out and my front wheel went from under me and I ended up on the ground," he said.
Asked if it had cost him the win, Cavendish said: "Not necessarily a factor, but it took a lot of energy to get back and André is a very good sprinter." He was, he said, "very disappointed," but pointed out that the team had ridden well and he already had a win in the bag. "It's okay," Cavendish concluded, "you just have to accept it."
"I think the crash really took it out of him, he's not at 100 percent," Cavendish's team-mate Michael Kwiatkowski said. "It's a pity he didn't win but we must remember we still have many stages to go."
Cavendish's last bad crash in the Tour came at stage four's bunch finish sprint to Rouen last year, when a rider skidded on a discarded plastic bottle and Cavendish fell heavily in the middle of the pack. That was the third in a season which had started with one big crash in Qatar and was followed by another when a dangerous manoeuvre in the Giro d'Italia by rival Roberto Ferrari saw Cavendish poleaxed at 60 kmh again. Following a much more accident-free start to the 2013 season, today was a brutal reminder of how fine a line between fortune and disaster it is that Cavendish and the remainder of the Tour peloton are riding.
Whilst Cavendish looks certain to continue racing, albeit battered and bruised, the high speeds and crashes of the Tour's first week are beginning to take their toll amongst the general classification contenders.
Greipel's Belgian team-mate Jurgen van den Broeck, twice fourth overall in the Tour, failed to start after badly injuring his right knee in a late pile-up on Wednesday and 2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal has been racing with a broken rib since the big crash on the very first stage. Slovenian Janez Brajkovic, ninth overall last year, crossed the line over 10 minutes down with blood pouring down his chin after crashing in the last kilometres.
The yellow jersey, meanwhile, remains in the possession of Australian squad Orica-GreenEdge, but is now held by Daryl Impey, the first South African to lead the Tour in the race's history thanks to his better placing in the sprint than overnight leader and team-mate Simon Gerrans. "We'll try and hold it until the mountains," Impey said, with today's rolling stage to Albi, looming fast on the horizon.