Tour de France: Mark Cavendish wins stage 18 with Bradley Wiggins safely retaining yellow jersey
A sensational sprint finish saw Mark Cavendish claim the 22nd Tour de France stage success of his career in Brive-la-Gaillarde today.
The 27-year-old from the Isle of Man equalled Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of Tour stage winners.
Bradley Wiggins, who retained a lead of two minutes five seconds at the top of the overall rankings as he seems ever more certain of becoming the first British winner of the Tour, played his part in leading Cavendish out at the end of the 222.5-kilometre route from Blagnac.
But the world champion had to use all his skill to negotiate his way around Luis-Leon Sanchez and Nicolas Roche, who were making a last-ditch bid to avoid a sprint finish, and power to a stunning triumph.
Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) was second, with points classification leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) third.
Sanchez (Rabobank) was fourth, with Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale) fifth.
Cavendish claimed his first Tour stage success for Team Sky on stage two to take his tally to 21, but had been at Wiggins' service until today's penultimate road stage.
The Manxman will have another opportunity in Sunday's final stage, usually a processional finish, until the Champs-Elysees, where the sprinters contest the stage win.
Cavendish is unbeaten on Paris' most famous boulevard, having won in 2009, 2010 and 2011 in the three Tours he has completed.
Wiggins has vowed to work for Cavendish in the French capital, but began to pay back his friend and team-mate's loyalty with a supreme showing in Brive.
The 32-year-old Londoner was seen punching the air in delight behind Cavendish as the Manxman celebrated the latest win of his prolific career. Cavendish won four stages in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2010 and five last year.
It was the fifth British stage success of the Tour and could be a sign of what to expect on the opening day of London 2012 a week tomorrow, when Wiggins bids to help Cavendish claim Olympic road race gold.
Wiggins now faces two further days' racing to become the first Briton to claim the yellow jersey on a permanent basis.
Wiggins retained his advantage over Team Sky colleague Chris Froome, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 2mins 41secs behind in third.
Wiggins is expected to enhance his hold on the maillot jaune in tomorrow's 53.5km time-trial to Chartres.
David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) was in the early 16-man breakaway.
Millar, winner of stage 12 one week ago, was joined by Team Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen.
The peloton were more than two minutes behind with 90km to go when a large black dog strayed into the road, causing a crash.
Philippe Gilbert was among the riders unseated by the animal and forcefully made a point to its owner, with BMC Racing team director John Lelangue pulling the rider away.
Boasson Hagen was first of the leaders to crest the summit of the day's penultimate climb, the category four Cote de Souillac, which came 41km from the finish. The peloton were 1:30 behind.
With the main bunch closing to within a minute of the escape group, Lotto-Belisol's Adam Hansen and Jeremy Roy (FDJ-Bigmat) accelerated clear as they passed under the 20km to go marker.
On the day's final climb, Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Luca Paolini (Katusha) bridged the gap and went ahead with Hansen.
With the Team Sky-led peloton closing in fast, Vinokourov went over the summit first and riders began to accelerate out of the main bunch in a bid to foil the anticipated sprint finish.
Six riders - with Roche, Sanchez (Rabobank) and Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Nissan) bridging the gap - had a 10-second lead entering the final 3km.
The group worked together to try to keep the peloton, with Team Sky at the front and Cavendish poised behind Wiggins, at bay.
A tight left-hand corner and a right-angled right slowed the pursuit before Wiggins went to the front, with Boasson Hagen taking over.
Cavendish left it late before coming off the Norwegian's wheel at 250 metres to go and moved up before a daring left to right move in the finishing straight saw him dart by Sanchez and Roche to record the latest victory of his stellar career.
The clear success also proved Cavendish is peaking at the right time for his tilt at Olympic glory a week tomorrow.
TOUR DE FRANCE - RECORD STAGE WINNERS...
:: Eddy Merckx (1969 to 1975) - 34 stage wins
:: Bernard Hinault (1978 to 1986) - 28
:: Andre Leducq (1927 to 1935) - 25
:: MARK CAVENDISH (2008 to present) - 22
:: Lance Armstrong (1993 to 2005) - 22
:: Andre Darrigade (1953 to 1964) - 22
:: Nicolas Frantz (1924 to 1929) - 20
:: Francois Faber (1908 to 1914) - 19
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