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What's that ruckus at the Tour de France? Sprint racing at its best.

Today Briton Mark Cavendish will be challenging a Frenchman for the green jersey, worn by the overall sprint leader – who, more often than not, tends to be a prima donna.

By Jon BrandCorrespondent / July 8, 2011

Briton Mark Cavendish celebrates winning the fifth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 102.2 miles starting in Carhaix and finishing in Cap Frehel, Brittany, western France, on Wednesday, July 6.

Christophe Ena/AP

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Lisieux, France

From afar, sprint finishes at the Tour de France look like unbridled chaos: a pack of riders flying down the final miles, legs pumping furiously, at speeds upward of 40 miles per hour. There’s no time for politesse – elbows fly, knees knock and, occasionally, a head-butt is thrown.

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In the closing meters, seemingly out of nowhere, one sprinter darts to the front, cranking the pedals until he crosses the finish line victorious, arms raised in jubilation.

Bravado, timing, and a taste for the spotlight seem prerequisites for successful sprinters.

They’re known as cycling’s prima donnas – riders with egos as big as their bulging quadriceps.

The first week of the Tour de France is traditionally their time to shine, but this year's course is unusual. The first six stages hugged the tight corners and steep hills of Brittany and Normandy, rewarding more versatile riders.

Two sprinters, including Team HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish, managed to capture stages against the odds. But right now the green jersey – worn by the race’s sprint points leader – is on the back of Philippe Gilbert, who’s not a sprint specialist.

His lead will be challenged today, however, as the peloton rides through the flat, broad roads of the Loire Valley toward a more typical sprint finish in Châteauxroux, where the Briton Cavendish won his first-ever Tour stage in 2008.

Since then, he's captured 16 stages, including Wednesday's, which he proclaimed a win against his “doubters” in the press.

Indeed, in a sport known for its soap opera headlines, these easily maligned riders have a special penchant for melodramatics, on and off the bike.

Journalists are often used as mouthpieces as petulant sprinters trade barbs like quarreling celebrities.

Earlier this week, French sprinter Romain Feillu criticized Cavendish as “arrogant towards everybody”; Cavendish had previously labeled Feillu a “kamikaze” sprinter after the Frenchman blocked his path to victory in Stage 3, won instead by American Tyler Farrar. (Farrar, an exception to the sprinter stereotype, is often called a “gentleman” by fellow riders.)

Sprinter rivalries have been known to get out of hand. Italy’s Mario Cipollini, one of the most decorated sprinters of the last two decades, was ejected from the 2000 Tour of Spain after punching a rider who had criticized him the previous day.

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