With nearly a dozen crashes in yesterday's fraught and fast stage of the Tour de France, it would have taken a brave man to predict who would finally make it to the finish in one piece, let alone win – but that honour went to Britain's Mark Cavendish.
In one of his classiest Tour stage wins to date, and his first this year, the Manxman tore round the extreme right of a straggling, battered pack to claim a victory by half a bike length over Philippe Gilbert. It was the latest proof that Cavendish is never so dangerous as when he is on the backfoot – as the HTC Highroad rider was after Monday's relegation from a mid-stage sprint and a final kilometre tussle with French sprinter Romain Feillu that saw him settle for fifth.
This time, though, there was no such bad luck, even if yesterday's finish was almost ridiculously demanding – a steep uphill with three kilometres to go, narrow, twisting roads all on exposed, windblasted Breton coastline. If it had rained as hard as on Tuesday, it could have been carnage.
Cavendish though, got exactly the protection he needed from his Australian team-mate Matt Goss – tipped as the favourite for yesterday – before accelerating around the edge of the pack for his 16th Tour stage win.
"This was as hard as when I won at Aubenas" – after a second category climb – "in the 2009 Tour," Cavendish said later, "But in some ways more difficult because it wasn't anticipated. I had no idea that I was going to win, I didn't think it was possible. When I got round Gilbert I was surprised, but I knew I had to keep going."
Cavendish's success brought tributes from his rivals, who were as taken aback as he was to see him there. "I didn't expect it," yellow jersey Thor Hushovd said, "it was such a hard finish, and the usual suspects were missing – except Cavendish."
The rest of Cavendish's press conference was the usual mixture of verbal fireworks and high emotion, first slating a journalist in a case of mistaken identity, then dedicating his win to his dog, Amber, who had to be put down yesterday and with time too, for a moment of crowing over his nameless critics who had – he believed – written him off yet again. "I'm not going to name names, but it's nice to prove the ignoramuses wrong," Cavendish said.
Apart from silencing his doubters, Cavendish's success, as well as an 11th place in the intermediate sprint after two other riders were relegated, puts him back in the front-running for the green jersey, too.
The Briton now has 84 points, 36 short of leader Gilbert, but today's stage to Lisieux and tomorrow's to Châteauroux – where he took his first Tour win back in 2008 – could well see him regaining further ground. For his rivals, too, the 2011 Tour has an ominously similar pattern to 2010: a below-expectations start, followed by a devastating comeback. If it goes on like in 2008 and 2009, Cavendish will be unstoppable.
Barring the Briton and the handful of riders still with enough energy to go for the final sprint – which included Sky's Geraint Thomas, an excellent fifth yesterday – the rest of the peloton probably were just thankful they had finished in one piece in a stage riven by crashes in narrow lanes of Brittany.
Bradley Wiggins was involved in one pile-up and came out of it unscathed, while Alberto Contador crashed twice and suffered bruising. Wiggins said on Sky's website: "It was mad a really, really horrible stage. I didn't crash that hard [I just] bent my handlebars and brakes."
Wiggins and Contador were comparatively lucky. Other overall favourites like Slovenian Janez Brajkovic suffered severe concussion, Dutch contender Robert Gesink gashed his knee and American Levi Leipheimer fell.
At the same time Spaniard Ivan Velasco suffered a suspected broken collarbone after colliding with a crash barrier and Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen badly hurt his right knee, hip and elbow. Boonen somehow completed the stage second last. Whether he starts today, though, is anybody's guess.
Stage 5 (Carhaix-Cap Fréhel, 158km): 1 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad 3hr 38min 32sec; 2 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at same time; 3 J Joaquin Rojas Gil (Sp) Movistar Team at same time; 4 T Gallopin (Fr) Cofidis; Le Credit En Ligne at same time; 5 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at same time; 6 A Greipel (Ger) Omega Pharma-Lotto at same time; 7 S Hinault (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at same time; 8 W Bonnet (Fr) FDJ at same time; 9 D Oss (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at same time; 10 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo at same time; 11 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at same time; 12 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at same time; 13 A Jeannesson (Fr) FDJ at same time; 14 S O'Grady (Aus) Leopard Trek at same time; 15 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at same time; 16 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Pro Team Astana at same time; 17 R Ruijgh (Neth) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team at same time; 18 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling at same time; 19 A Roux (Fr) FDJ at same time; 20 N Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale at same time. Selected Others: 40 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo 3hr 38min 32sec; 104 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at same time. General classification after Stage 5: 1 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo 17hr 36min 57sec; 2 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 0.01; 3 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 0.04; 4 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 0.08; 5 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at 0.10; 6 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling at same time; 7 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 0.12; 8 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at same time; 9 J Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek at same time; 10 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time; 11 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 0.13; 12 P Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad at same time; 13 C Horner (US) Team RadioShack at 0.18; 14 L Leipheimer (US) Team RadioShack at same time; 15 R Gesink (Neth) Rabobank Cycling Team at 0.20; 16 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Pro Team Astana at 0.32; 17 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 0.33; 18 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 0.39; 19 C Barredo Llamazales (Sp) Rabobank Cycling Team at 0.40; 20 C Gautier (Fr) Team Europcar at 0.58. Selected others: 46 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling 17hr 39min 03sec; 81 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 4:22.