MONTARGIS, France -- Mark Cavendish broke down in tears after winning the fifth stage of the Tour de France Thursday for his first victory in this year's race.
Defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain was 19th in the stage, and seven-time tour winner Lance Armstrong finished 30th.
Cavendish, who won six stages last year and four in 2008, broke through on the mostly flat 116.3-mile trek from Epernay to Montargis. The main contenders for the overall title cruised home afterward in the pack, which clocked 4 hours, 30 minutes, 50 seconds.
Fabian Cancellara retained the leader's yellow jersey. 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, while Armstrong is 2:30 back in 18th.
The 25-year-old Cavendish thrust his arms skyward and hugged teammates in the winner's circle after beating Gerald Ciolek of Germany and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. Cavendish had faded in a sprint finish in Wednesday's stage won by Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, and bared his frustration by hurling his bike after the fourth stage.
"It's incredible, it's been a long time," said Cavendish of his stage win. "Yesterday wasn't that great for us. I let the guys down."
Cavendish has developed a reputation among some as a "bad boy" of cycling.
He was fined by international cycling's governing body, UCI, this spring for making a hand gesture that was deemed unsuitable after he won a sprint finish in a Tour de Romandie stage.
Breaking down during a TV interview, after holding his face in his hands, HTC Columbia rider Cavendish admitted the "pressure was immense," said he had "been through a helluva 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 said.
With Cavendish pausing to cry, Cancellara came up and put his arm around him.
"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."
Thor 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. It was really hot weather-wise, but that also warms my heart."
Cavendish, for his part, said he's come down a notch.
During the good days, the elation from his past successes meant "you kinda float on a cloud," but that "there's people who just want to pull you off that cloud," he said.
"There's a lot of people who want to judge my personality on 30 seconds of what they see after a bike race. Somebody so ignorant to kinda dislike me, without knowing me, are not kinda worth worrying about what they think about me anyway."
After crashing in Monday's Stage 2 and puncturing 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.
He was instead 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 getting (them) 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. This is an extremely volatile, dangerous first week. It's just time to move on."
Riders embark on the longest stage of this year's Tour for Friday's Stage six, a 141.3-mile effort from Montargis to Gueugnon. The forecast is for humidity and temperatures of up to 95 degrees.
The Tour ends on July 25 in Paris.