MONTAUBAN, FRANCE >> Mark Cavendish started the Tour de France fearing that his training on the track for the Olympic Games would affect his chances of stage wins at cycling's biggest race.
After the sprinter from the Isle of Man posted a third stage win in less than a week, it's now obvious that the long hours spent on the boards have helped him improve his speed.
The 31-year-old "Manx Missile," as he is known in the peloton, used his great tactical sense and impressive burst of speed to win the sixth stage of the three-week race in another mass finish on Thursday. It was Cavendish's 29th Tour stage win overall.
"Oh my god, that was terrifying," said Cavendish, who also wore the yellow jersey for the first time of his career after winning the first stage of the race last weekend in Normandy. "That was like the old days, wheel surfing.
Cavendish, who had never been as successful during the first week of the Tour before, beat German ace sprinter Marcel Kittel by half a wheel, with Daniel McLay third.
Kittel launched the sprint but Cavendish attached himself patiently to Kittel's wheel before overtaking him in the final 200 meters. Cavendish passed five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault to be alone in second on the all-time list of stage winners. Eddy Merckx holds the record with 34 to Cavendish's 29.
"We were a little too far back, (teammate Bernhard Eisel) Bernie and I, going into that," Cavendish said, revealing the details of his sprint masterclass. "I wanted Kittel's wheel and I was fighting for it. I knew it would be the right thing to go early because it was slightly downhill, I put the bigger gear on again but I maxed out and should have put a bigger gear on. I held on and held Kittel off, did to him what he's done to me over the last three years."
While Cavendish benefited from the great work of his teammates in his two previous stage wins, he was left by himself in the southwestern town of Montauban after his lead-out riders fell away.
"He sprinted very well today," Cavendish' Dimension Data teammate Mark Renshaw said. "Today we have been catastrophic, we were stuck on the left side of the road, it was impossible to get back to the front. I believe the track training he did made the big difference, he prevailed with his speed."
Cavendish, who will be seeking the gold medal in the omnium discipline at the Rio Olympics, has been combining training both on the road and track this season. It clearly helped him recover the burst of speed that had abandoned him over the past two seasons, defeating Kittel after a final kilometer covered at the average speed of 62.6 kilometers per hour.
"I knew if I got a good slingshot I could be going 3-4km/h faster than (Kittel) before he had time to react, so that's what I did and I was happy to hang on for the win," Cavendish said.
The stage took the peloton from Arpajon-sur-Cere to Montauban in southwestern France on a 190.5-kilometer ride. Greg van Avermaet finished safely in the main pack and kept the yellow jersey going into Friday's first stage in the Pyrenees.
On a very hot day, Yukiya Arashiro and Jan Barta attacked from the off. The peloton did not chase and they built a comfortable lead of 4 1/2 minutes.
With temperatures as high as 36 degrees (98 F), the breakaway riders' lead started to decrease after the first intermediate sprint when Frenchman Bryan Coquard topped rivals Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan and Kittel in their battle for the best sprinter's green jersey.
They were reined in with 22 kilometers left after Coquard's Direct Energie team moved to the front of the pack to organize the chase. Late in the stage, a woman with a French flag tied around her neck rode on a white horse parallel to the peloton before the pace ramped up in the closing stages, with riders jostling frantically for prime position.
On the eve of the first big mountain stage in the Pyrenees, Van Avermaet enjoyed a quiet day, well protected by his BMC teammates. Defending Tour champion Chris Froome stayed safely in the pack too.
Van Avermaet holds a lead of 5:11 over rising French rider Julian Alaphilippe overall, with Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde third, 5:13 behind.
Froome is fifth, 5:17 behind, with his main rival Nairo Quintana in seventh place with the same time.
The 162.5 kilometers in Stage 7 on Friday feature the grueling ascent of the Category 1 Col Aspin, a 12.5-kilometer climb at an average gradient of 6.5 percent, as well as a very technical descent to the finish line at the Lac de Payolle.