Montpellier: British sprinting star Mark Cavendish overcame high wind and "bashing" in the pack to collect his fourth stage victory at this year`s Tour de France, as French rider Thomas Voeckler earned the race leader`s yellow jersey for a sixth straight day.
Victory in the 15th stage was a 19th win on the Tour for Cavendish, who clocked 4 hours, 20 minutes, 24 seconds. Tyler Farrar of the United States was second, and Alessandro Petacchi of Italy was third, both in the same time as Cavendish.
The mostly flat, 120-mile route through vineyards from Limoux to Montpellier was expected to favor sprinters, giving them a chance to shine again after three days of tough climbs in the Pyrenees.
"I had a lot of trouble in the mountains. It was difficult," the 26-year-old Cavendish said. "Today, it was a difficult, technical finish — there was wind on both sides and lot of bashing."
The breezy conditions reminded Cavendish of his native Isle of Man.
"The wind today is the way it always is at home," he said. The Manxman is now three career stage wins behind Lance Armstrong — who is fifth with 22. Belgium`s Eddy Merckx holds the record with 34.
Voeckler, a 32-year-old rider with the Europcar squad, kept the overall lead that he first took in a crash-marred Stage 9 and surprisingly held through the mountains.
"I am happy it was flat," he said. "It was dangerous near the end, we knew that with a finish in town, you have to be really careful, plus the fact after two weeks, there`s the fatigue factor."
The main contenders also played it safe on the wind-swept ride toward the Mediterranean and finished in the pack right behind the sprinters. Frank Schleck of Luxembourg remains second overall, 1:49 behind, while two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans is third, 2:06 back.
Defending champion Alberto Contador is seventh, 4 minutes back.
As the stage began, five riders — all about 2 hours behind Voeckler — surged out of the pack at the mile mark and built a lead of 4:15.
But the pack, led by Cavendish`s HTC-Highroad team, barreled ahead before the intermediate sprint with 46 kilometers left to ride and narrowed the gap on the breakaway.
In that sprint, Cavendish went on to win the most points among contenders for the best sprinter`s green jersey by nosing out Jose Joaquin Rojas of Spain and Belgium`s Philippe Gilbert.
Niki Terpstra of the Netherlands was among the breakaway riders but was caught with only one and a half miles left.
"Today was brutal," said George Hincapie, an American teammate of Evans` on BMC. "For a transition day it was harder than a lot of the mountain stages we did, it was full-on all day, fighting for position."
"You couldn`t let your guard down for one second."
In 2009, the last time a Tour stage finished in Montpellier, Armstrong`s Astana team won the team time trial. The seven-time Tour champion came within a split second of gaining the yellow jersey for one final time before he retired last year.
Monday is the second and final rest day before cyclists head into the foothills of the Alps for Stage 16 on Tuesday, a 101-mile ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap.
The Tour ends July 24 in Paris.