Cycling - Cavendish sets new mark with narrow Tour stage winGreat Britain's Mark Cavendish celebrates on the podium after winning the 223,5 km third stage of the 103rd edition of the Tour de France cycling race on July 4, 2016 between Granville and Angers. (AFP Photo/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD)
Angers (France) (AFP) - Mark Cavendish moved up to joint second on the all-time Tour de France stage win list with victory on Monday's third stage by the tightest of margins.
It was Cavendish's 28th Tour stage victory, and second of this edition in three days, to equal the mark of French hero Bernard Hinault.
Only Belgian legend Eddy Merckx remains ahead of the Manx Missile now with an astonishing 34 stage wins.
"To be honest, when I started my career to think at any point that I'd be mentioned in the same sentence as Bernard Hinault or Eddy Merckx, it's more than I could have imagined," said Cavendish.
"No way could I compare myself to the greats in any way."
The 31-year-old Briton was a hair's breadth away from losing out to German Andre Greipel, who had dominated the Manxman last year in winning four stages to Cavendish's one.
A metre from the line, Greipel looked sure to win, yet somehow Cavendish stretched out his bike to snatch victory.
"I've won and lost by less than that before. I kind of thought I'd got it but you never know until it's confirmed," added Cavendish.
"Greipel's a gutsy rider, he's got balls on him. When I went to go around him, he went again.
"I didn't get him with the sprint, I got him with the lunge, so I was pretty lucky with that."
He had won far more comfortably on Saturday's opening stage in Normandy, after which he took young daughter Delilah up to the victory podium with him.
This time he took Delilah and her infant brother Frey too.
- 'Take a coffee' -
Until the stunning finish, it had been a most pedestrian of stages, dragged out to six seconds under six hours for the 223.5km trek from Granville to Angers.
Peter Sagan finished fourth on the stage, just behind Frenchman Bryan Coquard, to maintain his grip on the race leader's yellow jersey.
"Today was a very relaxing day for us because in the breakaway there was only one rider," said Sagan.
"He went slow, we went slow also in the group -- it was nice. I was thinking in one moment that we would take a coffee, we had time.
"I saw a bar but afterwards there was no time.
"For 200km it was a transfer and the last 20km was OK."
But Cavendish's victory was enough to wrest back the sprinters' green points jersey from Sagan.
The Slovak still leads by eight seconds to Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe overall with Spain's Alejandro Valverde third at 10sec.
For the first 150km the peloton seemed to be on strike as French rider Armindo Fonseca went on the attack from the off.
The Fortuneo rider eased up to wait for some support but no-one took up the offer and he quickly stretch out to an 11-minute lead over the bunch.
It gave Fonseca the chance to ride through his home Brittany region on his own and in the lead but even when he slowed right down, the peloton did so too.
The sedate rhythm was at least to some people's taste.
FDJ team manager Marc Madiot was feeling nostalgic as he even managed to stop in his home village of Renaze to have a drink.
"Today we can enjoy the Tour de France like in the old days: we ride slowly, we stop to kiss friends and family. People are happy," he said.
Finally with 83km left, popular French veteran Thomas Voeckler set off to close the then 5min 30sec gap to Fonseca, which he quickly did, and only then did the hulky cogs of the peloton start churning into gear.
But once the gap had tumbled to 30sec, the peloton, like a predator stalking its prey, kept the leading pair fixed in its sites.
Fonseca and Voeckler's day in the sun lasted until 8km from the finish when finally, after a resilient battle, they were swamped by a peloton whose average speed had cranked up significantly.
After that it was up to Cavendish to put on another show.