Cavendish wins gift from Wiggins
With a little help from Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish showed he had lost none of his sprinting flair to clinch the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Friday.
Winner of the second stage in Belgium more than two weeks ago, the world champion had been reduced to a second fiddle role by the priority of his Team Sky - win the Tour with Wiggins - but the yellow jersey holder paid him back nicely when he led out the final sprint for his friend and teammate.
Wiggins punched the air in joy at the end of the 222.5 kms ride when he saw Cavendish bag his 22nd stage honours on the Tour de France, a gesture in dramatic contrast with the attitude of their teammate Chris Froome in the previous mountain stage to Peyragudes.
Froome then led Wiggins towards the finish line but appeared reluctant to do so as he was probably stronger on the day.
Froome retained his second place overall, 2:05 behind his team leader while Italy's Nibali remained third ahead of a 53.5-kms individual time trial between Bonneval and Chartres on Saturday.
"It was my gift for Mark," said Wiggins.
"It was dangerous in the finale and we decided to set up a train, it was safer and it was a chance to help Mark win."
Two breakaway riders, Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez and Ireland's Nicolas Roche, were still in the front when Cavendish made his effort and powered his way to a victory putting him on par with seven-times Tour championLance Armstrong and French sprinter Andre Darrigade, also winners of 22 stages in the past.
Australia's Matt Goss came second while Slovak Peter Sagan was third and consolidated his points classification green jersey.
Cavendish was all the more eager to showcase his talents as he had been in the awkward position of not taking central stage this year.
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Instead, he was left to struggle and suffer in the mountains with the sole aim of making it to Paris and possibly win more stages.
"(Team director) Sean Yates said this morning: 'just take it easy, it's a day for a break'. I said: 'let me have a sprint and Brad said: yeah we will make you a sprint'," Cavendish said.
The fifth victory by a Briton on this Tour and the fourth by a Team Sky rider was also a great morale booster one week ahead of the Olympic road race in London.
“It's very important and especially in the fashion I did it and especially as it was a hard stage. It wasn't easy at all. It can really give me the confidence that I come out of this Tour de France in a good enough condition," said Cavendish, widely tipped as the favourite for Olympic gold.
The stage was marred by a crash caused by a dog rushing on the road, which sent Belgium's Philippe Gilbert, Russia's Denis Menchov and France's Arthur Vichot to the tarmac.
Gilbert, who exchanged a few angry words with the dog's owner, was sent to hospital with a suspected hand fracture.
French president Francois Hollande paid a visit to the Tour on the roads of his home region of Correze and praised the French riders who also won five stages on the Tour, but the current Tour leader as well.
"The greatest rider on this Tour is obviously Wiggins as he's going to win it even though Froome might have been stronger but was disciplined. I love the idea that the Tour can be a collective effort," he said.
Wiggins was not so impressed.
"I didn't know who he was. I thought he was some guy from Loft Story (the French Big Brother)," he said.
RESULTS - STAGE 18
1. Mark Cavendish (Britain / Team Sky) 4:54:12"
2. Matthew Goss (Australia / Orica) ST
3. Peter Sagan (Slovakia / Liquigas)
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spain / Rabobank)
5. Nicolas Roche (Ireland / AG2R)
6. Tyler Farrar (US / Garmin)
7. Borut Bozic (Slovenia / Astana)
8. Sebastien Hinault (France / AG2R)
9. Daryl Impey (South Africa / Orica Greenedge)
10. Samuel Dumoulin (France / Cofidis)
11. Andre Greipel (Germany / Lotto)
12. Juan Jose Haedo (Argentina / Saxo Bank)
13. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway / Team Sky)
14. Andreas Kloeden (Germany / RadioShack)
15. Koen de Kort (Netherlands / Argos) +4"
16. Luca Paolini (Italy / Katusha)
17. Julien Simon (France / Saur - Sojasun)
18. Lars Bak (Denmark / Lotto)
19. Bradley Wiggins (Britain / Team Sky)
20. Marco Marcato (Italy / Vacansoleil)
22 Christopher Froome (Britain / Team Sky)
1. Bradley Wiggins (Britain / Team Sky) 83:22:18"
2. Chris Froome (Britain / Team Sky) +2:05"
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy / Liquigas) +2:41"
4. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium / Lotto) +5:53"
5. Tejay Van Garderen (U.S. / BMC Racing) +8:30"
6. Cadel Evans (Australia / BMC Racing) +9:57"
7. Haimar Zubeldia (Spain / RadioShack) +10:11"
8. Pierre Rolland (France / Europcar) +10:17"
9. Janez Brajkovic (Slovenia / Astana) +11:00"
10. Thibaut Pinot (France / FDJ) +11:46"
11. Nicolas Roche (Ireland / AG2R) +12:54"
12. Andreas Kloeden (Germany / RadioShack) +14:05"
13. Chris Horner (US / RadioShack) +14:22"
14. Chris Sorensen (Denmark / Saxo Bank) +18:46"
15. Denis Menchov (Russia / Katusha) +22:54"
16. Maxime Monfort (Belgium / RadioShack) +24:24"
17. Egoi Martinez (Spain / Euskaltel) +25:32"
18. Rui Costa (Portugal / Movistar) +29:51"
19. Eduard Vorganov (Russia / Katusha) +33:07"
20. Alejandro Valverde (Spain / Movistar) +33:50"
107. Daryl Impey (South Africa / Orica GreenEdge) + 2:49:41"