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St Quentin - Andre Greipel silenced the doubters with his second back-to-back bunch sprint victory in the fifth stage of the Tour de France cycling race on Thursday.
The German strongman surged ahead in the closing metres of another crash-ridden sprint finale to beat Australia's Matt Goss and Argentina's Juan Jose Haedo on the line.
While most questions to the Rostock rider a day earlier in Rouen had been about the crash by arch-rival Mark Cavendish 2.5km from the line, this time Greipel was the focus of attention in his own right.
British world champion Cavendish, who rode the day's 196.5km with cuts and bruises all over, was unable to move up a gear in the final stretch and had to be content with fifth place.
“On Monday, we already showed that we could be competitive when Mark Cavendish is there. I don't know why people believe I cannot beat him,” said Greipel, who was narrowly beaten by the Manxman on the second stage.
“I already beat him last year and before. I have the best team in the bunch so it's not such a surprise.”
It was Greipel's third Tour stage victory after he won stage 10 last year and it was arguably the most emphatic as the German was nearly caught in a pile-up with three kilometres to go.
American Tyler Farrar tumbled on to the tarmac and sent several other riders crashing, including green-jersey holder Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who managed to cross the line without too much damage.
“Somehow I managed to stay on my bike,” Greipel said. “I lost a lot of positions but (Australia's Adam) Hansen waited for me and somehow I had some power left for the final sprint.”
It was a close call for the sprinters as what remained of the pack reeled in the day's escapees - France's Mathieu Ladagnous and Julien Simon, Belgium's Jan Ghyselinck and Spain's Pablo Urtasun - only in the final kilometre.
For once, no Team Sky rider was involved in or halted by the crashes of the day as the British outfit changed their approach and led the way for most of the last 10 kilometres, riding in front to keep out of trouble.
“Just as a unit, we wanted to be more present. I've been caught in the mess the last couple of days,” said Sky leader and Tour favourite Bradley Wiggins. “As (team manager) Dave Brailsford said this morning: 'Let's stop dithering'.”
Team Sky's efforts seemed to indicate they were forming a train to lead Cavendish towards the final sprint but, as usual, the world champion was left to fend for himself in the last 300 metres.
Because of his crash, Sagan failed to score points on the finish line but he retained his green jersey 18 points ahead of Goss, 23 ahead of Greipel and 36 ahead of Cavendish.
“The crash did not scare me, it made me angry. I don't know what Farrar was doing,” Sagan said.
Farrar had already crashed several times in the previous days and the new incident was more bad news for his Garmin-Sharp team, the focus of attention in the morning over media reports that team manager Jonathan Vaughters and two of his riders had been given six-month suspensions by the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) after confessing to doping offences.
Garmin firmly denied the reports, as did the other riders named in the reports.
Friday's 207.5km sixth stage from Epernay to Metz should again be favourable to sprinters though one of them, Germany's Marcel Kittel, will not be at the start after giving up with gastroenteritis. - Reuters