MONTARGIS, France - British sprint star Mark Cavendish won Stage 5 to overcome a Tour de France victory drought, then broke down in tears as he laid bare both the pressure and pride that top-level sport can instill in professional athletes.
France's sports minister said her heart was warmed and fellow riders reached out to Cavendish as he cried. He said he had learned to come down from his "cloud" - where both elation and high expectation reside.
With the pack close of the heels of Cavendish, the overall standings didn't change on the hot and mostly flat 187.5-kilometer (116.3-mile) trek along wheatfields from Epernay in Champagne country to Montargis.
Fabian Cancellara retained the leader's yellow jersey. Defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain was 19th in the stage, and seven-time tour winner Lance Armstrong 30th.
With the Tour headed across the flats of northeastern France, sprint specialists like Cavendish get their chance to shine. When the race heads to the Alps starting Sunday, they're all but certain to fade into the background - until a new run of flats in the southeast in Week Two.
The 25-year-old Briton, who's known nearly as much for his dazzling promise as a sprinter as for his flare-ups of temper and tactlessness, made it look easy behind a splendid lead-out by his HTC-Columbia teammates, with a time of 4 hours, 30 minutes, 50 seconds - the same as the main pack.
While he won three stages in races this year - and even won the final Tour stage in 2009 - Cavendish suggested it felt like an eternity since he'd won glory on cycling's biggest stage.
"It's incredible, it's been a long time," said Cavendish of his 11th career stage win at the Tour, edging out Gerald Ciolek of Germany into second and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen into third. "Yesterday wasn't that great for us. I let the guys down."
In Stage 4 Tuesday, Cavendish lost out to Italian veteran Alessandro Petacchi - even though the Briton had a near-perfect lead-out from his team - and hurled his bike in frustration afterward.
Cavenish's image also took a blow earlier this year when he was fined by international cycling's governing body, UCI, for making a hand gesture that was deemed unsuitable after he won a sprint finish in a Tour de Romandie stage.
Holding his face in his hands and breaking down during a television interview, Cavendish admitted the "pressure was immense," and said he had "been through a helluva lot" while denying he had thrown his bike down a day earlier.
"I just want to thank all the people who supported me," he added.
With Cavendish pausing to cry, Cancellara came up and put his arm around the Briton.
"Sprints are never easy. They're psychologically very hard. Today, we saw a nice thing: After all the buzz around him - the young sprinter, the big mouth and all that - ... he's a real sprinter," the Swiss rider said. "A sprinter always has a nickname, that's the way it is."
Thor "The Viking" Hushovd of Norway, who wears the best sprinter's green jersey that Cavendish covets, and who has had tensions with him in the past, said: "Good to see him back today after all the problems he's had."
France's sports minister Roselyne Bachelot, who was on hand for the stage, was praised Cavendish's display of emotion.
"Only sport can give us scenarios like this," she said. "The one who was called 'the bad boy' for several days, became not only the good boy, but the absolutely superb boy.
"The tears of Cavendish on the podium, I'm going to remember that," Bachelot added.
Cavendish, for his part, said he's come down a notch.
"There's a lot of people who want to judge my personality on 30 seconds of what they see after a bike race," he said. "Somebody so ignorant to kinda dislike me, without knowing me, are not kinda worth worrying about what they think about me anyway."
The top standings didn't change Thursday.
Le Tour 2010
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2010 Tour de France