Lavaur (France): Mark Cavendish beat hail, rain and rival sprinters to snatch the 11th stage of the Tour de France and seize the green jersey on Wednesday in the last flat stage before the Pyrenees.
The Briton`s third stage win in this edition, his 18th in four Tours, was one of the smoothest if not the driest at the end of a 167.5-km ride where Frenchman Thomas Voeckler kept hold of the yellow jersey.
Ideally set-up in the final stretch in Blaye-les-Mines by his faithful lead-out team mate Mark Renshaw, Cavendish surged ahead 200 metres from the line in Lavaur.
Germany`s Andre Greipel, who beat his former team leader the previous day in Carmaux, had to be content with second place this time ahead of American Tyler Farrar -- winner of the third stage in Redon.
"Yesterday I feel I made a small mistake, Andre rode one of the most technically sound sprints I`ve ever had to sprint against," Cavendish told reporters.
"What gets me down is to see these eight guys ride themselves to the ground for me and I can`t finish the job for them. I told them I`ll win tomorrow.
"And I had to win after the work those eight guys did today. There was no other option really," he said about his HTC Highroad team mates.
Cavendish`s victory was all the more impressive as his foot hit the front wheel of Frenchman Romain Feillu with 500 metres to go so that the buckle of his shoe came off and he had to put it back on.
"I was lucky there were no swerves in the peloton. It could have been quite dangerous," he said.
But there was no denying the Manxman even though the heavy storm which poured on the riders in the finale did not help the chase behind the day`s early escapees, who were reined in two kilometres from the line.
One of the hardest parts of the Tour now starts for the British sprinter, who struggles in the mountains, with three days up in the Pyrenees.
However, he will almost certainly keep the points classification green jersey until the beginning of the third week in Montpellier.
Cavendish, who has made the green jersey one of his main goals on this Tour, now leads the points standings on 251 points followed by Spain`s Jose Joaquin Rojas on 235 and Belgium`s Philippe Gilbert on 231.
"For me it`s incredibly important. It`s the most beautiful jersey in the world, it`s what I came for and it took me half the Tour to get it," said the 26-year-old, who kissed the garment when he received it on the podium.
"There`s two more bunch sprints, one in Montpellier and the one in Paris. It will be difficult because I tire out little by little. But I`ll just keep fighting, give it my best shot and see what happens," he added.
Voeckler retained his overall lead with a 1:49 advantage over Spain`s Luis Leon Sanchez and 2:26 over Australia`s Cadel Evans.
"It was a wet and stressful day, but one more day in the yellow jersey is great. To be honest I expect to lose it tomorrow but it doesn`t mean I`m not going to fight to keep it," Voeckler said.
His Europcar team director Jean-Rene Bernaudeau was not so defeatist.
"Thomas will never admit it but I think he can keep it unless the favourites attack as early as the first climb. If they wait for the last climb, I don`t see Thomas losing 2:30 on it," he said.
In spite of the dreadful weather and recent crashes, none of the favourites found themselves in trouble in the short ride to Lavaur -- Evans, three-times champion Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers all finished inside the main pack.
They will have 211 kilometres and three classic climbs to the finale of Thursday`s stage in Luz Ardiden to battle it out.