LAVAUR, France — Mark Cavendish of Britain won a rainy 11th stage of the Tour de France in a mass sprint Wednesday, while Thomas Voeckler kept the race leader’s yellow jersey.
Cavendish edged Andre Greipel of Germany on the line after the 104-mile trek from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur to seize the best sprinter’s green jersey.
Cavendish made the most of the last stage designed for sprinters before the race reaches the Pyrenees. He claimed his 18th stage win at the Tour, his third in this year’s race, winning in 3 hours, 46 minutes, 7 seconds.
“My most dangerous point is my acceleration,” said Cavendish, who benefited from a perfect lead-out by his HTC-Highroad teammate Mark Renshaw to win by a bike length. “I’m super happy. I hope I get to keep the green jersey this year. We’ve been fighting for it all along.”
Defending champion Alberto Contador, who has been hampered by crashes this year, trails Voeckler by 4:07.
The stage came alive after 8 miles when six breakaway riders — Ruben Perez Moreno, Tristan Valentin, Jimmy Engoulvent, Mickael Delage, Lars Boom and Andriy Grivko — went away under a slight rain.
Although none of the escapees were a threat to the Tour contenders or to Voeckler’s overall lead, the peloton kept them on a leash and the group had a maximum lead of 4 minutes, 20 seconds after 27 miles.
Being pushed along by a strong tail wind, the bunch started the chase before the intermediate sprint halfway through the stage, where Cavendish took seventh place ahead of his most dangerous rival in the battle for the best sprinter’s jersey, Jose Joaquin Rojas of Spain.
Cavendish had a minor mechanical problem on his bike but was able to bridge the gap with the help of his HTC-Highroad teammate Bernhard Eisel.
HTC-Highroad riders, joined by Omega-Pharma-Lotto and Garmin-Cervelo cyclists, shared the workload at the front of the peloton to set a faster tempo as the escapees saw their lead drop to 1:34 at the top of the small Puylaurens climb, with 20 miles to go.
The breakaway worked efficiently, with all riders taking turns in front, until Boom attacked alone 2.5 miles from the line, moments before his companions were reined in. Boom was caught with about a mile to go.
Cavendish took the sprint jersey from Philippe Gilbert of Belgium.
“I said yesterday that it could have been four or five wins by now actually, but I’ve got no regrets,” Cavendish said. “The first (sprint) stage when Tyler (Farrar) won was one for me, and yesterday when Greipel beat me, I could have won there, too. Yesterday, I didn’t kick. I kind of rolled before kicking, so I made sure I kicked today.”
Voeckler said he is expecting to lose his yellow jersey during Thursday’s stage, which takes the riders on the first of a three-day trek across the Pyrenees with a punishing 131-mile ride over the legendary col du Tourmalet and finishing on top of Luz-Ardiden.
The stage is likely to be a key moment of the race. It also features a new climb, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, a 6-mile ascent with an average gradient of 7.5 percent.
Contador trails Cadel Evans of Australia and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 1:41 and 1:30, respectively, before visiting his favorite playground. With their minds already on the big mountain challenge to come, three-time champion Contador and his rivals stayed comfortably in the pack and didn’t take any risks.
“The Schleck brothers have a strong team, which might be more united than Contador’s one,” Voeckler said. “Evans looks in great shape and his teammates are doing an amazing job for him. They will all be there tomorrow.”