Tour de France: Cavendish dash keeps the green jersey within sight

When mark cavendish glanced back at his rivals as he all but freewheeled towards his fourth Tour stage win this year yesterday, it looked almost as if he was underlining his superiority in the bunch sprints.

But had that been the case, it would have been a superfluous gesture. What Cavendish pulled off at Bordeaux was a win that spoke volumes for itself: alone or with the support of his team-mates, Cavendish's superiority in bunch sprints is, and remains, unquestionable.

The HTC-Columbia rider's victory yesterday was by far his most convincing of the 2010 Tour so far, particularly as it came without the aid of his usual leadout man Mark Renshaw.

Renshaw's expulsion after the Australian headbutted a rival a week ago had left the Manxman's armchair critics convinced that Cavendish would be unable to fend for himself.

Far from it: instead, at Bordeaux, the Briton produced a sprint that left him two bike lengths or more ahead of his rivals, and with enough time to look back calmly and see how far his acceleration had taken him.

Given the race is just two days away from Paris and the degree of general exhaustion in the peloton, Cavendish's victory was even more remarkable than any of his 13 previous Tour stage wins.

"One bike length or five, it really doesn't matter, all that matters is winning," Cavendish said. "I wanted to save as much energy as possible.

"There's a lot of racing left, a 53-kilometre time trial which I'll do alone, when I'm only used to doing the last 200 metres of a stage alone. I didn't know how big the gap was, all I see is the finish line. Initially when Alessandro [Petacchi] went, I thought, 'Oh no, he's surprised me'. Instead I got past him easier than I expected."

The location of Cavendish's latest success gave it an unusual historical link to Britain's only previous leading Tour sprinter, Barry Hoban.

Hoban took his third and eighth Tour stage wins – the latter in 1975 was the last of his career – in Bordeaux velodrome: 35 years on Cavendish has picked up where the Yorkshireman left off.

The question of whether Cavendish will be the first Briton to take the green jersey tomorrow remains unsettled, although his latest victory keeps it alive.

Cavendish is now 16 points adrift of the overall leader, Petacchi, and six behind Thor Hushovd, who finished a poor 14th in Bordeaux.

Assuming it all comes down to the final bunch sprint on the Champs Elysées, and Cavendish wins in Paris for a second year running, Petacchi still has to finish outside the top 6 for the Briton to come out on top.

But if Cavendish's challenge remains on the rise – although it looks as if Paris will come just too early for it to succeed – then a second straight British win in a row could be on the cards today.

Bradley Wiggins eased back on Thursday's final mountain stage, losing 23 minutes, in order to be fresher for today's 52-kilometre time trial, and according to Team Sky director Dave Brailsford, Wiggins is "looking forward to it".

"He deliberately went at 80 per cent of his capacity on Thursday, and his legs are feeling good," he added.

"That said, the GC [general classification] is still up in the air, and there are a lot of potential overall challengers, including Denis Menchov [fourth overall] and Alberto Contador, who will be going all out to win it. It'll be a very interesting time trial."

Today's stage also represents the last chance for Andy Schleck to oust Contador from the yellow jersey, although the likelihood of that happening is minimal. Just eight seconds separate the two top, the second smallest margin in Tour history prior to a final time trial.

But just as was the case in the Tour's smallest ever pre-final time trial gap, back in 1990 when there was a mere five seconds of daylight between specialist climber Claudio Chiappucci and the eventual winner Greg LeMond, Contador – like LeMond, a gifted time triallist – should have the edge.

In their last Tour time trial duel last July, Schleck lost nearly two minutes to Contador over 40km round Lake Annecy. On today's 52 km, the damage the Spaniard inflicts is likely to be greater.

Tour standings

Yellow Jersey: 1 Alberto Contador (88 hours 9 minutes 48 seconds); 2 Andy Schleck at 8sec; 3 Samuel Sanchez at 3:32; 4 Denis Menchov at 3:53; 5 Jurgen Van Den Broeck at 5:27

Selected Others: 23 Lance Armstrong at 37:58 24 Bradley Wiggins at 41:34; 66 Geraint Thomas at 2hours 2.1sec

Green Jersey: 1 Alessandro Petacchi 213pts; 2 Thor Hushovd 203; 3 Mark Cavendish 197; 4 Jose Rojas 167; 5 Robbie McEwen 162