CHATEAUROUX, France His dream was within reach and Mark Cavendish didn't let it get away.
The British sprinter had been frustrated Monday when his chance to win a stage of this year's Tour de France was thwarted by a breakaway. On Wednesday, he got revenge by recording his first victory in cycling's premier race.
The Team Columbia rider took the fifth stage in a sprint after a three-rider breakaway that led almost the entire way in the Tour's longest leg was caught within sight of the finish line.
Stefan Schumacher of Germany retained the leader's yellow jersey on a day the sprinters showed their mettle but had no impact on the standings. Contenders for the overall victory all finished safely in the pack.
Cavendish had hoped to win the third stage Monday, but the breakaway held out to the end, denying the sprinters a chance for a win.
"Obviously after the other day we were really disappointed, so it made us motivated for today," said the 23-year-old. "For sure it is the biggest thing that has happened to me."
French national champion Nicolas Vogondy, who had been in Wednesday's breakaway, tried to hold off the pack at the end but didn't have the strength.
"I wore (the French champion's jersey) nicely until 100 meters from the end, but I missed out on the most important 100 meters," Vogondy said. "I still had some reserves, but it's difficult to resist when the sprinters set off."
Cavendish completed the flat, 144-mile ride from Cholet to Chateauroux in 5 hours, 27 minutes, 52 seconds, edging veterans Oscar Freire of Spain and Erik Zabel of Germany.
All but five of the 177 finishers were given the same time, meaning there were no changes to the overall standings, where Schumacher leads Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg and David Millar of Britain by 12 seconds.
"It was great to enjoy this stage in the yellow jersey," Schumacher said. "Yesterday, it was a great mix of feelings given that the start of the season was not good for me. Yesterday, I could have cried but I didn't want to cry in front of everyone. Today, I was much more relaxed."
Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde, one of the favorites for the overall title, had a scare when he hit debris about 50 miles into the stage and went over his handlebars. He injured his right arm, right knee and calf, but got back on his bike and kept riding.
The injuries are not expected to threaten Valverde's continued participation, the Caisse d'Epargne team said.
Frenchman Aurelien Passeron hit a female spectator about three miles from the end of the race. Passeron got back on his bike and continued, but finished almost 5 minutes behind the field. Race organizers said the spectator injured her right wrist but did not break any bones.
Last year's best climber, Juan Mauricio Soler of Colombia, pulled out of the race because of an injury he received in the first stage.
Wednesday's stage was the last opportunity the sprinters will have for a while. The Tour enters the mountains for the first time in Thursday's sixth stage, a 121.5-mile trek from Aigurande to Super-Besse that features the moderate climbs of the Massif Central.
Though the ascents are less formidable than the famed and forthcoming stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps, they may give the first indication of how the favorites will fare in the next two weeks.
Australian Cadel Evans second last year is the highest-placed rider among the prerace favorites. He is in fourth 41 seconds ahead of Denis Menchov of Russia, 1:04 up on Valverde and 1:22 up on Carlos Sastre of Spain.
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.