Cycling's "bad boy" just made good.
British sprint star Mark Cavendish broke down in tears after overcoming a Tour de France victory drought by winning the race's fifth stage on Thursday.
France's sports minister said her heart was warmed and fellow riders reached out to Cavendish as he cried. He said he had learned to come down from his "cloud" — where both elation and high expectations reside.
With the pack close on the heels of Cavendish, the overall standings didn't change on the hot and mostly flat 116.3-mile trek along wheat fields from Epernay in Champagne country to Montargis.
Gerald Ciolek of Germany was second and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen third.
Fabian Cancellara retained the leader's yellow jersey, defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain was 19th in the stage, and seven-time tour winner Lance Armstrong finished 30th.
With the Tour headed across the flats of northeastern France, sprint specialists like Cavendish get their chance to shine. When the race heads to the Alps starting Sunday, they're all but certain to fade into the background — until a new run of flats in the southeast in the second week.
The 25-year-old Briton, known nearly as much for his dazzling promise as a sprinter as for his hot temper, made it look easy behind a splendid performance by his HTC-Columbia teammates, finishing the stage in 4 hours, 30 minutes, 50 seconds.
While he won three stages in races this year — and even won the final Tour stage in 2009 — Cavendish suggested it felt like an eternity since he'd won on cycling's biggest stage.
"It's incredible, it's been a long time," said Cavendish of his 11th career stage win at the Tour. "Yesterday wasn't that great for us. I let the guys down."
In Tuesday's fourth stage, Cavendish lost out to Italian veteran Alessandro Petacchi — even though the Briton had a near picture-perfect lead-out from his team — and hurled his bike in frustration afterward.
Cavenish's image also took a blow this spring after he was fined by international cycling's governing body for making a finger gesture that was deemed unsuitable after he won a sprint finish in a Tour de Romandie stage.
Holding his face in his hands and breaking down in a TV interview, Cavendish admitted the "pressure was immense," said he had been through a lot and denied that he had thrown his bike down a day earlier.
"I just want to thank all the people who supported me," he added.
With Cavendish pausing to cry, Cancellara came up and put his arm around the Briton.
"Sprints are never easy," Cancellara said. "They're psychologically very hard. Today, we saw a nice thing: After all the buzz around him — the young sprinter, the big mouth and all that — ... he's a real sprinter."
"A sprinter always has a nickname, that's the way it is," the Swiss rider added.
Thor "The Viking" Hushovd of Norway, who wears the best sprinter's green jersey that Cavendish covets, and who has had tensions with him in the past, said: "Good to see him back today after all the problems he's had."
France's sports minister Roselyne Bachelot, who was on hand for the stage, was beaming about Cavendish's display of emotion.
"Only sport can give us scenarios like this," she said. "The one who was called 'the bad boy' for several days, became not only the good boy, but the absolutely superb boy."
"The tears of Cavendish on the podium, I'm going to remember that," Bachelot added. "It was really hot weather-wise, but that also warms my heart."
Cavendish, for his part, said he's settled down a bit.
"I learned a big lesson not to get on that cloud, and people pulled me — and I came crashing down to earth," Cavendish said, "and you know, I came down really really hard."
Among the top contenders behind Cancellara, Cadel Evans of Australia holds third place, 39 seconds back, and last year's runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg is sixth, 1:09 back. Contador is ninth, 1:40 back, and Armstrong is 2:30 back in 18th.
After crashing during the second stage Monday and popping a tire and losing time in the third stage on Tuesday, Armstrong turned his attention to keeping out of trouble in frenzied finishes like Thursday's — that play to sprinters' strengths — and looking ahead to the first mountain stage on Sunday.
"I don't know how selective the Alps will be," the seven-time Tour champion said, referring to a possible shakeout among contenders on the climbs. "Those big group sprint finishes — I'm looking forward to get behind me."
"It was definitely a stressful first four or five days, unlike anything I think we've seen, and I think even people who have been at this event for 40 years would agree," he said.
"This is an extremely volatile, dangerous first week," Armstrong added. "It's just time to move on."
Riders embark on the longest stage of this year's Tour on Friday, a 141-mile ride from Montargis to Gueugnon. The forecast is for humidity and temperatures of up to 95 degrees.
The Tour ends July 25 in Paris.
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.