The second longest stage of the 2013 Tour de France ended with a sprint victory for Omega Pharma-QuickStep's Mark Cavendish and Australia's Simon Gerrans looking forward to another day in yellow.
The pressure is now off, for sure because we've won a stage of the Tour de France. It would have been nice to win yesterday but it's not to be underestimated how hard it is to get one stage win on this race.
The lumpy 228.5km stage from Cagnes-sur-Mer to Marseille was always destined as one for the sprinters, but an early break came close to staying away before losing its lead with 4km left to race.
Cavendish stayed ahead of a crash in a reduced bunch sprint to finish ahead of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) for his first stage victory of this year's Tour.
“I didn't feel great today but when the guys are committed like they were, not just in the final, but all the way today, it's important to pay them back," said Cavendish.
"They show their motivation by riding themselves into the ground and, like I always say, that really does give you something extra."
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), who placed 15th on the stage, continues to lead the General Classification (GC) with team mates Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini second and third.
"Today we had two objectives," said Gerrans. "To try and win the stage and keep the yellow jersey within the team.
"Matt Goss got distanced on the final climb but I still have the yellow jersey on my shoulders and I managed to stay up the front and stay out of trouble."
The order of the top nine on the GC remains unchanged but Alberto Contador replaced Saxo-Tinkoff team mate Michael Rogers in 10th place overall.
The stage victory was Cavendish's 24th in the Tour de France, placing him fourth on the all-time list. Only Eddy Merckx (34), Bernard Hinault (28) and André Leducq (25) have more.
Six riders, Yukiya Arashiro and Kevin Reza (Europcar), Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), Anthony Delaplace (Sojasun) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), immediately broke away and rode out to a lead of over 12 minutes before losing two men with less than 60km to race.
Reduced to four and with Argos-Shimano, Lotto-Belisol, Orica-GreenEDGE leading the chase the time gap began to come down steadily.
A crash at the 15km mark momentarily stalled the chase. The incident left no visible casualties but delayed several including Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), the winner of stage one, and Orica-GreenEDGE's main sprinter Matt Goss.
After a quick regrouping the break was caught inside the five-kilometres-to-go banner as the sprint trains upped the speed and massed at the front for the finale.
The Lotto-Belisol team of Andre Greipel took command of the race inside the final kilometre after a crash further behind had stopped much of the peloton in its tracks.
Greipel, however, could only finish fifth as Omega Pharma QuickStep led the race into the final 500 metres to set up Cavendish perfectly.
“Geert Steegmans did good, didn't he? I didn't really do anything today. If I'd lost that sprint, I really wasn't paying the lads back," said Cavendish.
"They were incredible. The whole day they stayed with me. I sit behind Geert so I don't feel the wind all day.
"He stayed with me on that last climb, then we had to use the guys up in the final to catch the breakaway then Geert just stayed calm and then he went so fast that I didn't have to accelerate off his wheel. I just held the pace that he took me up to with 250 metres to go."