Britain endured a day of mixed emotions today as Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France before Mark Cavendish replicated his first Tour de France win with a stage seven success in Chateauroux.
Wiggins, who finished fourth in the 2009 Tour, tumbled to the tarmac with around 40 kilometres of the 218km stage from Le Mans to Chateauroux remaining, suffering an apparent shoulder injury which saw him abandon a race he began with high hopes.
Cavendish then secured victory in his trademark style.
It was the 26-year-old from the Isle of Man’s 17th Tour stage win of his career – moving up to equal eighth on the all-time list – on the same road in Chateauroux as his maiden triumph in 2008.
Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), who also won Wednesday’s fifth stage in Cap Frehel, finished ahead of Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and former team-mate Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who were second and third, respectively.
Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) retained the race leader’s yellow jersey.
The Tour enters the Massif Central this weekend and there was no way the sprinters’ teams would let the day’s four-man breakaway last.
Pablo Urtasun (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Mickael Delage, Gianni Meersman (both FDJ) and Yannick Talabardon (Saur-Sojasun) escaped the pack in the opening kilometre and were more than seven minutes clear after 60km of racing.
Former green jersey winner Tom Boonen (QuickStep), who fell heavily on Wednesday, quit the Tour after 90km of today’s stage, becoming the sixth of the 198 starters to withdraw.
The riders were making slow progress south from Le Mans, apparently untroubled, but there was a crash in the peloton with around 40km remaining.
Wiggins was at the thick of it, the Team Sky leader crashing heavily and was unable to continue after assessment from the race medic and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman.
It was a massive blow for the British team, who only yesterday were celebrating their first Tour stage win through Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Wiggins was a podium hopeful and began the day in sixth place overall, 10 seconds behind Hushovd.
The intermediate sprint was 25.5km from the finish today and Cavendish, oblivious to the chaos behind him involving his compatriot, led the peloton across the line to boost his green jersey hopes.
HTC-Highroad then continued their bid for the stage win, hunting down the escapees and catching them inside the final 15km.
Petacchi got himself on to Cavendish’s wheel with just three kilometres remaining as the contenders jostled for position.
The Manxman appeared to be set fair as his lead-out men Matthew Goss and Mark Renshaw controlled the pace, but Greipel swooped to the right-hand side of the road as he tried to catch HTC unawares.
But Cavendish responded powerfully and ended up taking a relatively comfortable win as Greipel’s charge tailed off with Petacchi pipping him to second.
Hushovd retained his lead ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) atop the general classification as he claimed a seventh-placed finish on the day.