Norwegian Thor Hushovd edged a tight finish to win the fourth stage of the Tour de France on the 193km route between Villers-Cotterets and Joigny.
The 29-year-old had Credit Agricole team-mate Julian Dean to thank as he guided him expertly into contention with 300 metres to go, from which point Hushovd got the perfect run in to beat second-placed South African Robbie Hunter of Barloworld to the line by less than a bike-length.
It was Hushovd’s first victory of the season and it took him up to second in the overall standings behind leader Fabian Cancellara, who finished safely in the peloton to keep his yellow jersey.
Spain’s Oscar Freire was third, while Britain’s Mark Cavendish finished 10th for his second successive top-10 finish.
Hushovd told Eurosport: “It was really tight at the finish but the team did really well to help me. They did a super job and they were in the right place at the right time. There are a lot of sprinters in this race, a lot more than normal which made it tough.”
Earlier in the race there had been a blow for the Caisse d’Epargne team after the retirement of Xabier Zandio, who suffered his second crash of the tour when he collided with Remy Di Gregorio.
A team spokesman said: “He has a broken right collarbone so it’s impossible for him to continue.”
In a close race, the escape was made by five riders after just 34km as Juan Antonio Flecha, Gorka Verdugo, Matthieu Sprick, Sylvain Chavanel and Christian Knees formed a leading pack which would stay together for almost the entire race.
There was no repeat of the third stage’s desperate chase of the breakaway pack though, with the escape’s lead only four minutes at its greatest.
Flecha reached the first intermediate sprint mark at 69km and collected six points, Chavanel picking up four and Sprick two.
The efforts of first the Liquigas team and then the CSC team helped the peloton close the gap to just 1:25 at one point, but the leaders extended their advantage again approaching the halfway stage, stabilising at around 3:40.
At the 120km sprint gate in Soligny-les-Etangs, Flecha again took the six points, with Chavanel once more following him with four points and Knees this time grabbing two.
These time bonuses allowed Flecha to reduce his arrears in the overall standings on Cancellara to one minute, with Chavanel just 44 seconds back.
Chavanel also acquired seven points in the climbing points to move within one point of Cofidis team-mate Stephane Auge in the race for the polka-dot jersey.
With around 22 km to go, Knees tried to take the initiative, racing ahead of Sprick, Chavanel, Flecha and Verdugo, but they soon caught him up, while the peloton, led by Marzio Bruseghin and Wim Vansevenant, closed to just 1:05 behind.
At 10km shy of the finish the gap was down to 30 seconds and temporary breakaway duo Knees and Flecha shared a handshake to acknowledge their valiant attempt shortly before the whole quintet were swallowed up by the peloton as the sprint started.
With 1km to go the Quickstep riders dominated the head of the peloton but green jersey-wearer Tom Boonen was nowhere to be seen when team-mate Gert Steegmans moved aside, allowing Dean to provide Hushovd the cover needed to take his fifth ever stage victory at the Tour de France.
Cavendish was first Briton home in 10th, with David Millar 48th, Geraint Thomas 80th, Bradley Wiggins 123rd and Charles Wegelius 153rd.
In the overall standings Millar lies fourth, Wiggins sixth, Thomas 47th, Wegelius 86th and Cavendish 173rd.