Mark Cavendish nearly lost a shoe in the final stretch but kept his cool to win a rainy 11th stage of the Tour de France in a mass sprint Wednesday, easily beating Andre Greipel of Germany at the line to seize the leading sprinter's green jersey.
French rider Thomas Voeckler kept the race leader's yellow jersey after the 104.1-mile trek from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur. Voeckler finished 75th in the stage but with the same time as the winner.
Cavendish made the most of the last stage designed for sprinters before the race reaches the Pyrenees to claim his 18th stage win at the Tour, his third in this year's race. He won in 3 hours, 46 minutes, 7 seconds.
"It's incredible to have the green jersey. It's the most beautiful jersey in the world," said Cavendish, who got an assist from HTC-Highroad teammate Mark Renshaw.
Cavendish's efforts were almost ruined toward the end when he hit the front wheel of Frenchman Romain Feillu's bike.
"There were 10 of us close together and my shoe banged into his front wheel," he said. "My foot technically came out of the shoe — I had to reach down and slide the ratchet and redo it with 600 meters to go. I was lucky there were no swerves in the peloton. It could have been quite dangerous."
Cavendish, who took the green jersey from Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, now leads Jose Joaquin Rojas by 16 points. He will have two more opportunities to win stages before the race ends on the Champs Elysees on July 24.
Despite his impressive tally of stage wins at the Grande Boucle, the coveted sprint champion's jersey has so far eluded the 26-year-old Cavendish.
He was second last year, 11 points behind Alessandro Petacchi of Italy, and second by 10 points to two-time sprint champion Thor Hushovd in 2009. Cavendish pulled out before the Alpine stages in 2008 to conserve energy for the Olympics.
Voeckler said he was expecting to lose his yellow jersey during Thursday's 12th stage, which takes the riders on the first of a three-day trek across the Pyrenees with a punishing 131-mile ride over the legendary col du Tourmalet and finishing on top of Luz-Ardiden.
The stage is likely to be a key moment of the race. It also features a new climb, the Hourquette d'Ancizan, a 6.15-mile ascent with an average gradient of 7.5 percent.
With their minds already on the big mountain battle to come, three-time champion Alberto Contador and his rivals stayed comfortably in the pack and didn't take any risks.
Contador, who has been hampered by crashes this year, trails Cadel Evans of Australia and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 1:41 and 1:30, respectively, before visiting his favorite playground.
"The Schleck brothers have a strong team, which might be more united than Contador's one," Voeckler said. "Evans looks in great shape and his teammates are doing an amazing job for him. They all be there tomorrow."
The stage came alive after 8 miles when six breakaway riders — Ruben Perez Moreno, Tristan Valentin, Jimmy Engoulvent, Mickael Delage, Lars Boom and Andriy Grivko — pulled away under a light rain.
Being pushed along by a strong tail wind, the bunch started the chase before the intermediate sprint halfway through the stage, where Cavendish took seventh place ahead of Rojas to earn nine more points.
HTC-Highroad manager Bob Stapleton said intermediate sprints tired out Cavendish this year after race organizers changed the rules. There is only one intermediate sprint in each stage, with 20 points available to the rider who wins — as opposed to six points in previous years when there were more intermediate sprints.