This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Mark Cavendish (Team Sky) stormed to his second stage win in this year's Tour de France with another superb sprint finish on stage 18. The world champion showed his tactical nous to reel in a late break and to beat Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) on the line.
Sky had led a relatively easy life on the undulating stage, posting Edvald Boasson Hagen in the early break, while Bradley Wiggins continued his march towards Paris. But in the closing stages, with a sprint chance for Cavendish in the cards, Sky called back its Norwegian star as Wiggins himself lead the pursuit of a last ditch six-man break.
Cavendish has certainly lacked his usual, supreme leadout in this year's Tour, but it has at least allowed him to demonstrate to the global audience just how exceptional his sprint is. With Nicholas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) ahead, and a poised looking Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) tucked behind the Irishman, Cavendish surged from the bunch in the final 200 meters, not just leaving the two leaders behind but distancing his main sprint rivals.
"I don't know how much I won by, but I had to go early. I haven't done anything this Tour because I saved so much energy. I knew I'd be able to go long. I knew I'd get it. I felt really good today," the Sky sprinter said on the line.
"I said earlier on in the Tour, we looked at the files and the reason I wasn't winning sprints was because I was training in the mountains. I wasn't able to show anything in this Tour because we had the yellow jersey. Today we spoke with the boss at the start, and I said please give me a chance, and the guys were like, 'Ok we're going to make a sprint today.' I'm so happy."
Video: Tour de France stage 18 highlights (Courtesy: ASO)
Sky's sprint chances looked out of the picture earlier in the stage. A large group containing Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack-Nissan), Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar), Davis Millar (Garmin-Sharp), Julien Fouchard (Cofidis), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol), Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol), Kris Boeckmans (Vacansoliel-DCM), Luca Paolini (Katusha), Jeremy Roy (FDJ-Big Mat), Rui Costa (Movistar), Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) and Patrick Gretsch (Argos-Shimano) escaped on the first climb after 67 kilometres.
It was a collective bound by convenience and necessity. With just one open stage remaining and 13 teams yet to win a stage, the day's racing began with a flurry of attacks. Rider after rider, fuelled by a desire to rescue their Tour and that of their teams, jettisoned from the front. But it took almost an hour for the final selection to settle. The majority of teams was represented but with the demoralized Cofidis and AGR2 two of the notable exceptions.
With the stakes so high, the gap was never going to remain out of reach and despite relative organisation in the break the margin of acceptance never crept above four minutes.
With the gap at just over a minute, Millar was the first to attack, splitting the group inside the final 43 kilometers. The evergreen, ever-present Vinokourov was the first rider to match the Scot. Albasini and Boasson Hagen also reacted, but it was the Norwegian, with the bit between his teeth, who pressed on alone, unleashed from his burdening duties as Sky's all-round dogsbody. He was soon closed down but marshalled by Vinokourov, the gap increased to nearly 1:40.
The pace increased and the desperation was palpable; the next phase of the race became critical as the bunch strained to a breaking point in a bid to hold onto the break.
Second by second, the gap came down. 1:09 as Millar and company passed under the 30-kilometre-to-go banner.
The break needed another injection of pace. Too many riders were hanging on without taking a turn. It failed to materialise, and the peloton with the likes of ten Dam (Rabobank) won the tug of war.
Gretch, Vinokourov, Millar, Costa kept the fires burning but with 20 seconds shaved off, the possibility of the Sagan sprint show increased but with a fourth category climb inside the last 10 kilometres, all was still possible. Millar hadn't given up hope though, again accelerating in a bid to dislodge the dead wood and ad impetus to the break's chances.
Liquigas could smell blood massing near the front of the bunch. Millar's efforts had failed again but Hansen accelerated. Roy was attentive enough to follow, as Arashiro led a counter attack.
GreenEdge soon allied with the chasers, and Sky, with Wiggins leading Cavendish, also sensing a rare chance for the world champion in this year's Tour.
Roy and Hansen had 30 seconds, but were soon joined by Vinokourov, Nuyens and Paolini: the last stand from the early break. Vinokourov, in his last Tour led affairs berating his accomplices as they reached the foot of the last climb, still with 30 seconds.
Weening with Goss in mind set the pace for the bunch as Roy and Nuyens cracked to leave Vinokourov, Hansen and Paolini ahead. GreenEdge replaced Weening. The Australian team is looking for its first stage win.
Just 12 seconds ahead, Vinokourov, still leading the trio, accelerated again and with nine kilometres to go a win seemed possible. Kloden, Roche and Luis Leon Sanchez led a counter.
Paolini missed a turn, and Vinokourov flapped his arms as Hansen, the best sprinter kept his head down. The Sanchez group latched on with six men holding an eight-second lead with four kilometres to go. Roche, sensing the lack of collaboration, accelerated.
Behind, just by six seconds, Wiggins moved to the front, Boasson Hagen on his wheel, with the world champion in attendance. Roche led out, still in search of his maiden Grand Tour stage but as Wiggins and then Boasson Hagen faded, Cavendish's rainbow jersey burst through.