Mark Cavendish of Team Sky has taken his second stage win of the 2012 Tour de France, and the 22nd of his career, in Brive-la-Gaillarde this afternoon to prove he is in form ahead of the Olympic road race a week tomorrow. Maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins, perhaps with an eye on the duties he will be performing in London next weekend, led the peloton under the flamme rouge in pursuit of the last of the day's escapees as well as a couple of riders who had attacked from the bunch late on.
The latter included AG2R's Nico Roche, who seemed set to challenge fellow attacker Luis Leon Sanchez of Rabobank for the win, before Cavendish put in a massive burst of acceleration to jump across onto the Spaniard's wheel as they approached the closing 100 metres of the 215 kilometre stage from Blagnac. From that point, there was only one winner. The Manxman will be looking to add his third win of this year's Tour on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees, where he has never been beaten.
A third member of the five man team that will represent Great Britain in that Olympic road race next Saturday, Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar, was in a 16-man break that got away early on in the stage that featured one Category 3 and three Category 4 climbs.
Also in that group were two former Tour of Britain winners – Michael Albasini of Orica-GreenEdge and Edvald Boasson Hagen, both of whom won that race while with Cavendish’s former HTC Highroad team.
With those hills presenting an ideal opportunity for the Manxman to fine-tune his form following a race in which more often than not he has been playing a supporting role to Wiggins’ chase of the overall win, the escapees were kept on a tight leash.
The same, unfortunately, could not be said of a dog that ran into the road as the peloton rode by with a little under 100 kilometres to go. Ten riders were brought down in the subsequent crash, including Katusha’s Denis Menchov and BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, although eaqrly reports the Belgian had a suspected fractured wrist thankfully turned out to be exaggerated.
Luckily for Team Sky, Wiggins and second-placed Chris Froome weren’t among the riders involved in that canine-induced chute, but it does highlight that for all the excitement building ahead of Sunday, the race isn’t over until the riders cross the finish line on the Champs-Elysees for the final time.
Heading over the last of the day’s climbs, crested immediately in front of the 10 kilometre to go banner, three men who had been in that earlier break were now out on their own at the front of the race.
First over was Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, whose career appeared to be over 12 months ago when he crashed and broke a leg on the same stage that saw Vacansoleil-DCM’s Johnny Hoogerland end up in a barbed wire fence.
With the Kazakh as the trio headed into that final ten kilometres were Luca Paolini of Katusha, like Astana trying to rescue a stage win from the Tour, and Lotto-Belisol’s Adam Hansen.
Behind, Roche and Andreas Klöden of RadioShack Nissan were chasing hard having jumped off the front of the bunch, as did Sanchez.
With some tight bends in the finale, it was touch and go whether Roche and Sanchez, by now ahead on their own, would manage to hang on and contest the win, but Wiggins’ work in towing the peloton along set Cavendish up perfectly to sprint to a win that takes him level with André Darrigade’s Tour de France record for a sprinter, set in 1964.
Matt Goss of Orica GreenEdge and Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan would also overhaul Roche and Sanchez to respectively finish second and third.
Tomorrow’s 53.5 kilometre individual time trial should see Wiggins and Froome further distance the opposition in the overall standings, ahead of a triumphant procession into Paris where Team Sky will look to finish off a memorable Tour de France with panache by setting Cavendish up for another win on cycling’s most famous finish line.
Stage winner Mark Cavendish, Team Sky:
“It would have been easy for the team to just ride in to Paris now after the mountains
“But we spoke on the bus before the start and I stuck my hand up and said ‘please give me a chance’. They all committed to that and said we were going to make a sprint. I’m so happy, those guys who I’ve been riding with these last three weeks helped me out.
“We came here with the goal of winning the yellow jersey and we're first and second on GC.
“Spirits are high and to be part of a team that could go on to win the Tour de France is a massive honour.”
Dave Brailsford, Team Sky Team Principal:
“We were determined to repay Mark for everything he has done for the team over the last few weeks. I know Bradley and the guys were very motivated this morning to try and say thanks to him. When you lead Mark Cavendish out like that the result is never in doubt.
“Two wins from four sprints is a fantastic return. He’s demonstrated once again why he’s such an amazing rider and a genuine world champion.
“The one thing I’d like the team to be known and remembered for is the unity and teamwork we've shown. The guys work tirelessly for each other, they get on well and they showed again today that they all back each other, it doesn’t matter what the situation is.”
Sean Yates, Team Sky Sports Director:
“It just gets better and better. It worked out fantastic today. We set out to have a bunch sprint, but when the break went and Lotto and GreenEdge had someone in there we knew they wouldn’t chase. Eddy went across on the climb and it turned into a 16-man group.
“A lot of teams knew it was their final chance today. They chased down the break even though they had very little chance of taking the stage with no sprinters. It almost stayed away but when it didn’t we took up the challenge of delivering Cav like the boys talked about in the meeting this morning. It all worked out to perfection and Cav was really happy.
“Brad delivered him perfectly. He had to go early with the breakaway still up there. It worked in his favour as he got a gap and then there was no way of pegging him back once he’d opened up so early. On these long, super-fast sprints he is on another level to everyone else.”
Defending champion Cadel Evans, BMC Racing:
"I had a couple of days that were really important days that pretty much put me out of contention for the podium.
"I'll see if I can just salvage something in my Tour tomorrow. We'll find out when I get to the first time check. I'll give everything, but everything of 80 percent or everything of 70 percent isn't always enough for a Tour time trial."
BMC Racing's Philippe Gilbert about the crash caused by a dog today:
"He ran into the middle of the bunch and there was nothing we could do to avoid it. I was pretty upset at the people because I think it's very dangerous to leave such a big dog running into the bunch. It could have been really bad. In the end, I have bruises on my left shoulder and elbow but nothing broken, which is most important ahead of the Olympics. I was lucky."
Tour de France Stage 18 result 1 CAVENDISH Mark SKY PROCYCLING 04h 54' 12'' 2 GOSS Matthew ORICA GREENEDGE All st same time 3 SAGAN Peter LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 4 SANCHEZ Luis-Leon RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM 5 ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE 6 FARRAR Tyler GARMIN-SHARP 7 BOZIC Borut ASTANA PRO TEAM 8 HINAULT Sébastien AG2R LA MONDIALE 9 IMPEY Daryl ORICA GREENEDGE 10 DUMOULIN Samuel COFIDIS LE CREDIT EN LIGNE 11 GREIPEL André LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 12 HAEDO Juan Jose TEAM SAXO BANK-TINKOFF BANK 13 BOASSON HAGEN Edvald SKY PROCYCLING 14 KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 15 DE KORT Koen TEAM ARGOS-SHIMANO 16 PAOLINI Luca KATUSHA TEAM 17 SIMON Julien SAUR-SOJASUN 18 BAK Lars LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 19 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 20 MARCATO Marco VACANSOLEIL-DCM Last man home on Stage 18 153 LANGEVELD Sebastian ORICA GREENEDGE 05h 06' 44'' General Classification after Stage 18 1 WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING 83h 22' 18'' 2 FROOME Christopher SKY PROCYCLING + 02' 05'' 3 NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 02' 41'' 4 VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM + 05' 53'' 5 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 08' 30'' 6 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 09' 57'' 7 ZUBELDIA Haimar RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 10' 11'' 8 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR + 10' 17'' 9 BRAJKOVIC Janez ASTANA PRO TEAM + 11' 00'' 10 PINOT Thibaut FDJ-BIGMAT + 11' 46'' Points classification after Stage 18 1 SAGAN Peter LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 386 pts 2 GREIPEL André LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 264 pts 3 GOSS Matthew ORICA GREENEDGE 238 pts 4 CAVENDISH Mark SKY PROCYCLING 175 pts 5 BOASSON HAGEN Edvald SKY PROCYCLING 146 pts Mountains classification after Stage 18 1 VOECKLER Thomas TEAM EUROPCAR 134 pts 2 KESSIAKOFF Fredrik ASTANA PRO TEAM 123 pts 3 SORENSEN Chris Anker TEAM SAXO BANK-TINKOFF BANK 77 pts 4 ROLLAND Pierre TEAM EUROPCAR 63 pts 5 VALVERDE Alejandro MOVISTAR TEAM 51 pts Young Riders' Classification after Stage 18 1 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM 83h 30' 48'' 2 PINOT Thibaut FDJ-BIGMAT + 03' 16'' 3 KRUIJSWIJK Steven RABOBANK CYCLING TEAM + 01h 00' 50'' 4 IZAGUIRRE INSAUSTI Gorka EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 01h 14' 28'' 5 TAARAMAE Rein COFIDIS LE CREDIT EN LIGNE + 01h 16' 16''