Isle of Man sprinter Mark Cavendish made cycling history on Thursday when he became the first ever Briton to claim three stage wins in a single edition of the Tour de France.
Cavendish dominated a bunch sprint at the end of the race's 167.5km 12th stage, finishing ahead of Frenchman Sébastien Chavanel and Belgian Gert Steegmans.
"This was the hardest of all three sprints. It was really fast all day," said Cavendish, who overtakes former British great Barry Hoban, twice a two-time stage winner in a single edition of the race. "I'm glad I could do that for my team-mates especially for how hard they've worked in the last few days."
Australian Cadel Evans, of Silence-Lotto, retained the race leader's yellow jersey with a one second lead over Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck, who rides for CSC. American Christian Vande Velde is still in third place at 38sec, while Austrian Bernhard Kohl remained fourth at 46. Russian Denis Menchov and Spaniard Carlos Sastre at 57 and 1:28 respectively in fifth and sixth.
After a day marked by scandal, then an ambitious breakaway that was caught inside the final 10km, there were few changes to the race's general classification, save for the disappearance of Italian climber Riccardo Riccò.
The 24-year-old Italian began the day in ninth place overall but finished it in police custody after it was revealed he had tested positive for banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin). It meant his entire Saunier Duval team left the race under a cloud on Thursday morning minutes before the riders left the start line in Lavelanet.
Cavendish, however, brought some smiles back to faces after another textbook sprint was prepared by his impressive Columbia team.
The 23-year-old launched his final drive in the final 200 metres and was simply unbeatable, coasting over the finish line holding up three fingers to signal the number of wins on the race. He now becomes Britain's record holder for the number of stage wins in a single edition, surpassing Hoban who has a record eight stage wins, scoring doubles in 1969 and 1973.
Cavendish's Columbia team lacked the coherence they showed in stage five and eight, when they put their impressive 'train' to good use to lead out the Manxman before his final drive for the finish line. But Cavendish still managed to display his power, and his agility, to again beat a bunch of top names including Robbie McEwen, Oscar Freire, Steegmans and German veteran Erik Zabel.
"It was a difficult finish and there was a lot of wind at the end but that just shows the strength of our team," added Cavendish, who admitted that struggling to get over the Pyrenees mountains had left him depleted. "I didn't win with the same margin I did on my previous stage wins, and that shows how tired I am now, but I still managed to win nonetheless. I'm really happy."
Evans will go into Friday's 13th stage, a 182km ride from Narbonne to Nimes, unlikely to come under threat from his main yellow jersey rivals.
Part two in the battle for the yellow jersey is not likely to begin until Sunday when the 15th stage, over 182km, from Embrun to Prato Nevoso in Italy kicks off three stages in the Alps.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008