TOURNAI, Belgium — Mark Cavendish led a tight sprint to the finish Monday to win the second stage of the Tour de France, while Fabian Cancellara retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey after the mostly flat ride across Belgium.
The top overall standings didn’t change as defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia and fellow title contender Bradley Wiggins of Britain trailed close behind in the pack after the 129-mile ride from Vise to Tournai.
Cavendish collected his 21st Tour stage victory and proved he remains the rider to beat in Tour sprints. He also won three stages in the Giro d’Italia and two in the Tour of Oman this year.
The 27-year-old from the Isle of Man has been left largely to fend for himself this year because his Sky team is focusing on helping Wiggins become Britain’s first Tour winner.
“It’s quite nice. I came into this sprint day with really the least pressure I’ve ever had in a Tour stage,” Cavendish said. “Normally in the past, I’ve had a full dedicated team. Normally I win by some bike lengths. Today I had to lunge at the line, so you see that it wasn’t too easy.”
Cavendish is renowned for his short fuse and he rebuffed a reporter who suggested that Sky appeared to have two goals — success for him in the quest for the green jersey given to the best sprinter, and Wiggins’ hopes for the yellow.
“There are not two objectives. There’s one objective,” Cavendish said gruffly.
He also sought to dispel speculation that he might be looking ahead to the London Olympics at which he will be one of the favorites to win gold in the road race.
“It (the Tour) is the most beautiful race of the year for me,” he said. “Here, it’s the Tour de France … I can’t say the Olympics are more important.”
Cancellara kept the lead for a third straight day after winning the opening-day prologue Saturday. Wiggins remains second, 7 seconds back, and Evans is a further 10 seconds behind in eighth place.
The riders’ only climbing challenge of the day was a winding, low-grade ascent up the citadel of Namur, a medieval town that is the capital of the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium and hosts an annual beer festival in the spring.
The flat layout helped riders keep pace with each other in a tight pack against the wind, setting the stage for a sprint finish.
Three breakaway riders, including Anthony Roux of France with an injured left wrist which hung limply by his handlebars, led for most of the day. The pack swallowed up Roux, the last to hold out, with a little less than nine miles left.
On Tuesday, the three-week race returns home to France for more mostly flat stages. First up, a 122-mile trek from Orchies to the English Channel fishing town of Boulogne-sur-Mer.