Mark Cavendish narrowly missed out on his 26th victory at the Tour de France on Wednesday afternoon.
The Manx Missile was pipped to the line by rivals Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan at the end of the fifth stage, as Greipel strengthened his grip on the green points jersey.
It proved to be a frustrating end to an otherwise good stage for Etixx Quick-Step as the race travelled over 189.5 kilometres from Arras to Amiens in northern France.
Team-mate Tony Martin successfully defended the yellow jersey he won in Tuesday’s stage as he finished safely in the peloton after helping deliver Cavendish to the finish.
The stage was expected to favour the sprinters, and so it proved. However, as in Sunday’s stage to Neeltje Jans in Holland, the sprint proved to be anything but straightforward.
With just main leadout man Mark Renshaw left in his team ahead of him, Cav found himself boxed in as the bunch raced into the final kilometre and he lost the wheel of Renshaw, leaving the Manxman to fend for himself in a chaotic sprint into a strong headwind.
Try as he might, he was unable to find a way through until 500 metres from the line and, once free, Cav launched his sprint early.
His trademark burst of speed took him past the likes of Alexander Kristoff, Edvald Boasson Hagen and John Degenkolb but he was unable to find the second kick needed to edge past the fast-finishing Peter Sagan and Greipel who surged round the outside to take a fine win.
The result extended Greipel’s lead in the green jersey standings to 32 points ahead of Sagan, with Degenkolb third just three points ahead of Cav.
While all eyes were on Cavendish in the sprint, fellow Manxman Peter Kennaugh and his Team Sky colleagues ensured Chris Froome safely finished the stage in the main peloton to maintain the Briton’s second place in the general classification, 12 seconds behind Martin.
Thursday’s stage from Abbeville to Le Havre features a slight uphill finish but Friday’s stage from Livarot to Fougères is expected to finish in a bunch sprint where Cav will be hoping to claim his first win of this year’s Le Tour. After Sunday’s time trial, the race heads to the mountains for several arduous and daunting stages.