Mark Cavendish became the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France for five years with a brilliant sprint shoot-out on the fifth stage from Cholet to Chateauroux.
The Isle of Man rider for Team Columbia, who also won two stages in this year’s Giro d’Italia, held off late attacks from Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel, and pulled away from his rivals in the final metres.
The 232km stage was the longest in this year’s Tour and was led almost from start to finish by three breakaway riders.
The French trio of Lilian Jegou, Florent Brard and national champion Nicolas Vogondy opened up a gap of more than eight minutes, which was slowly whittled away by the chasing peloton.
Vogondy broke away from his compatriots in the final 1.5km, only to be overhauled by the sprinters around 30 metres from the line.
There is no change in the overall lead, with Stefan Schumacher holding on to the yellow jersey, 12 seconds ahead of Kim Kirchen and Britain’s David Millar.
Cavendish, 23, is the first British rider to win a stage since Millar in 2003, and the first to triumph in a bunch sprint since Barry Hoban in Bordeaux in 1975.
“It’s the biggest thing to have happened to me and to do it so young, it’s a massive thing, to win a stage of the Tour de France means so much,” Cavendish told Eurosport.
“I was given a good platform by my team, but I had to attack a bit earlier than I usually would.
“I came here with the intention of winning one stage. I would have gone home disappointed if I hadn’t.”
Cavendish was given a good slipstream by his team-mates, but he was forced to attack sooner than usual as Hushovd, 2005 green jersey winner, challenged to his right.
The Credit Agricole rider eventually finished fourth in the stage to move to the top of the points standings.
Meanwhile, Alejandro Valverde, who won the opening stage from Brest to Plumelec, suffered two setbacks in his quest for overall victory.
The Caisse d’Epargne rider sustained knee and forearm injuries in his first fall, and was forced to change a wheel after puncturing.
Valverde remounted and suffered another fall, eventually coming home one minute 27 seconds behind the yellow jersey.
Tomorrow’s stage, from Aigurande to Super Besse, goes into the Massif Central for the first time, but the peloton will be without the reigning king of the mountains after Juan Mauricio Soler was forced to withdraw from the race with a wrist injury.
The Colombian climber fractured a bone in Saturday’s opening stage, from Brest to Plumelec, and struggled through the next three days before suffering another fall in the neutral zone today.
Soler tried to continue but was withdrawn by his Barloworld team.