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A long gradual climb to the line produced the best finish of the race so far as Andrei Greipel took his second stage with a great power sprint, which relegated his rivals including Sky’s Mark Cavendish to their own battle for the lesser placings. However, it could have been so different, with four escapees who stayed clear for much of the day, only being caught with the finish banner well in sight.
The fifth stage of the 2012 Tour de France, a predominantly flat 196.5km ride from Rouen to Saint Quentin in the NW of France, saw a break of four riders going clear and building a decent lead of 5 minutes 40 seconds over the peloton.
However, they were never really given the freedom to do more than dream that they could stay clear to the finish. The four men were Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ), Jan Ghyselink (COF), Julien Simon (SAU) and Pablo Urtasun Perez (EUS).
So, for much of the second half of the stage, as the becalmed wind turbines and the chateaux of the region drifted by in the background, the peloton relentlessly pulled back the escapees, driven as often as not by Radioshack-Nissan Team of race leader Fabien Cancellara.
The ambient humidity and atmosphere of ennui were at odds with the attentiveness of the peloton, who gathered themselves, like the heavy shower clouds that stalked the race for much of the afternoon.
The escapees upped their game as the race came into the last 25km, but it seemed to be a vain cause as the Sky and BMC teams took over the chasing on the long straight road into Saint Quentin. By 10km to go the gap was down to 44 seconds.
Sky were clearly intent on giving Mark Cavendish a text-book lead-out for the first time in the race and they were lined out impressively in the closing kilometres, alongside BMC and André Greipel’s Lotto Belisol Team.
A crash at 3km to go shook things up and perhaps unsettled the chase. The Sky train seemed to be unaffected, but they rapidly evaporated as the chase became desperate in the last 2 kilometres and Mark Cavendish was left to find his own way through the last 1500 metres or so.
Back at the front, the escapees could hardly believe they were still clear and as they hesitated for a second, Jan Ghyselink (COF) attacked alone with a kilometre to go. Briefly it looked as though a miracle would happen and the winner would indeed come from the break, but they were finally swept up inside the last 200m.
Suddenly the top sprinters emerged from the chaos of the chase and it was Greipel who held on best to claim the win with Goss and Cavendish gasping to cling on to his wheel, both fading in the final 100 metres or so.
Despite the crash, the leading contenders all came over the line safely, with no significant changes to the GC. Peter Sagan was the one “name” to be caught up in the crash, though he re-mounted unhurt.
After the stage Team Sky's Sports Director Sean Yates was happy to see the reaction from the team on the day.
“It’s another day down and another day closer to the mountains," he said. "It was an incident-free day for us and for most of the other teams which was what we had hoped for.
“The final didn’t work out quite how we wanted it but the guys were all there and they did a good job. We upped the ante and next time it will be better. Cav dropped back a bit at the finish and had a bit too much work to do at the end.
“We need to keep this going starting tomorrow and we will look to keep Bradley safe and set Mark up heading into the finish.”
1 André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol Team 4:41:28
2 Matthew Harley Goss (Aus) Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team
3 Juan José Haedo (Arg) Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
4 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Sky Procycling
5 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne
6 Tom Veelers (Ned) Argos-Shimano
7 Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) Katusha Team
8 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre - ISD
9 Sébastien Hinault (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
10 Yohann Gene (Fra) Team Europcar
General classification after stage 5
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Nissan 24:45:30
2 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:07
3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
4 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:00:10
5 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 0:00:11
6 Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team 0:00:13
7 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:00:17
8 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:18
9 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Sharp
10 Andreas Klöden (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan 0:00:19