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By Julien Pretot
MONTAUBAN, France (Reuters) - Mark Cavendish cemented his status as the Tour de France's greatest sprinter when he claimed his 29th stage victory in the race in Thursday's sixth leg.
The 142nd triumph of his professional career put the Briton in outright second place on the list of all-time Tour stage winners ahead of Bernard Hinault (28).
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Cavendish is now five shy of Eddy Merckx's record.
Greg van Avermaet (BMC) had a quiet day in the peloton, as did defending champion and race favourite Chris Froome (Team Sky) of Britain, but the Belgian retained the overall leader's yellow jersey.
Dimension Data rider Cavendish, 31, surged ahead in the final straight and held off a charge from German Marcel Kittel (Etixx-Quick Step).
Another Briton, Dan McLay (Fortuneo Vital Concept), took third place.
'Manx Missile' Cavendish, who reclaimed the green jersey in the overall points category from Slovak Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), has now won half of the stages in this year's race, having managed only one last year.
Kittel and German champion Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) had been widely tipped by pundits to win the sixth leg but once again Cavendish denied them.
"I don't give a shit what people say," he said with trademark defiance. "There's a reason why people like that are commentating on cycling and are not team managers."
DAY FOR SPRINTERS
Cavendish, who won his first Tour stage in 2008, could add to his total in Montpellier, Villars les Dombes, Bern and the run-in to the last day in Paris.
It was a day for the sprinters on a mostly flat 190.5-km stage from Arpajon-sur-Cere and the Manxman did not disappoint, perfectly timing his surge to pip Kittel. Greipel was never in contention in the finale.
Czech Jan Barta (Bora-Argon 18) and Japan's Yukiya Arashiro (Lampre) opened a maximum lead of five minutes but their breakaway was never likely to succeed.
After the first hot day of the Tour in the Massif Central, temperatures reaching 36 degrees Celsius, the riders now head for the first Pyrenean stage, a 162.5-km trek to the Lac de Payolle featuring the category-one climb to the Col d'Aspin.
Van Avermaet, who has a lead of five minutes 11 seconds, will look to keep hold of the yellow jersey after stage seven.
"It will be hard but I will try. I will fight for it every minute," he said.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)