Britain’s Mark Cavendish produced a stunning finish to claim victory on the 18th stage of the Tour de France and equal the record number of 22 stage wins for a sprinter on the race.
Sky teammate and compatriot Bradley Wiggins came over the finish line seconds later, with his 2 minutes, 5 seconds overall lead on UK teammate Chris Froome intact.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali is still third overall at 2:41 after the 226km ride between Blagnac and Brive-La-Gaillarde.
Wiggins, who is set to become Britain’s first winner of the world’s biggest bicycle race today, played a starring role for his Sky teammate Cavendish in what was a technical, but thrilling finale into Brive.
Despite his yellow jersey making a rare appearance in the final kilometers as Sky led the chase of a small leading group, Wiggins said it was payback for the sacrifices Cavendish has made in the race.
“He’s been an incredible teammate the last couple of weeks. It’s nice to be able to pay him back,” Wiggins said. “It’s been hard every morning, thinking about the GC [general classification] and maybe sacrificing some sprint stages.”
Cavendish, who won Stage 2 to take his tally to 21, has mostly had to shelve his sprint ambitions this year as Sky took aim at an historic yellow-jersey victory.
He admitted it took some persuasion to convince his team bosses he could equal Andre Darrigade’s record tally of 22 stage wins for a sprinter.
“It did put my sprint chances on the back foot, but today I said: ‘Please just give me a chance in the sprint.’ And then Brad jumped in and said: ‘Yes, we’ll go for the sprint, we’ll lead it out,’” Cavendish said.
Despite a breakaway escaping early in the stage, they were never allowed to build a lead of more than three-and-a-half minutes.
A number of attacks were launched in the closing kilometers, but with the gap coming down steadily, the sprinters’ teams started to pull at the front in anticipation of a possible bunch finish.
As planned on the team bus prior to the stage, Sky appeared at the front of the chase in the closing few kilometers with the unmissable yellow jersey of Wiggins leading the chasing pack in the closing 1.5km.
Norwegian teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who had been involved in the earlier breakaway, then took over the lead-out, but in the end Cavendish made the win his own.
In the closing 400m Irishman Nicolas Roche, seeing the peloton closing in, made a bid for victory with Spaniard Luis Leon Snachez sticking on his wheel.
However, with the finish line in sight, Cavendish emerged from nowhere and dug deep to deliver a trademark turn of speed that handed him his second stage win of the race to equal Andre Darrigade’s record of 22 wins for a sprint specialist.
“When you’re used to winning five stages a year every year, it can make you hungry for sprints,” Cavendish said..
While Roche, the son of legendary cyclist Stephen Roche, has yet to win a stage on the race, he was one of the top 20 riders to be given a welcome helicopter ride to yesterday’s stage in Chartres.
Meanwhile, Sanchez could be one of the many riders hoping to stun Cavendish on the Olympic road race in London on Saturday.
However, Wiggins believes this latest win speaks volumes for Cavendish’s chances of adding Olympic gold to his world title from last year.
“Nine times out of ten Cav finishes it off when you do something like that,” said Wiggins, who will be one of Cavendish’s four Olympic teammates in London. “And once again he showed, if there was any doubt, that he is the fastest man in the world.”