Mark Cavendish produced a stunning turn of speed to win stage 18 of the Tour de France as race leader Bradley Wiggins turned leadout man to help set his Sky team-mate up for a sensational victory.
Cavendish launched a long-range sprint to overhaul the remnants of the breakaway and continued to accelerate away from his rivals to win by an astonishing margin.
The world champion has had his sprint opportunities limited in this year’s Tour, with Sky focussing their efforts on Wiggins’ yellow jersey campaign, but the team repaid the Manx Missile’s loyalty by producing a committed leadout in Brive-la-Gaillarde.
And Cavendish took full advantage to claim victory ahead of Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) and green jersey holder Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).
“I don’t know how much I won by but I had to go early because the break was still away,” said Cavendish after his second stage win of the 2012 Tour.
“I haven’t done anything in this Tour so I’ve saved so much energy from not being in the sprints. I knew I’d have the energy to go early.
“This Tour de France has been about the yellow jersey so there’s been no sprints [for me]. Sean [Yates] said in the bus, ‘let’s have an easy day’, so I put my hand up and said, ‘please give me a chance’. Everyone committed and I’m so happy that those guys I’ve been riding with for the past few weeks were able to help me out.”
Team boss Dave Brailsford added: “I knew Bradley and the guys were very motivated to repay Cav’s loyalty and hard work with a good leadout. The win was never in doubt and he’s demonstrated once again what a great world champion he is.”
It took two attempts for the day’s breakaway to form, with a 16-strong group that included Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), stage 12 winner David Millar (Garmin-Garmin-Sharp), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) eventually getting away.
The escapees’ advantage was never allowed to grow out past the three minute mark, although the chase was disrupted when a dog caused a crash which brought down a number of riders, including Denis Menchov (Katusha) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing).
The stage profile looked to be a good test of form for the sprinters ahead of the Olympic Games, with one category three and four category four climbs on the 222.5km route.
Just three riders – Vinokourov, Luca Paolini (Katusha) and Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) – were still ahead by the time the final category four ascent arrived just 10km from the finish, and Nicolas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale), Andreas Kloden (Radioshack-Nissan-Trek) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi) used the climb to jump out of the peloton and bridge the gap.
The six riders held a ten second lead going into the final five kilometres but the chase was slowed by a technical run-in before Wiggins moved to the front and produced a huge turn to reduce the deficit.
Cavendish then leapt from the wheel of Boasson Hagen, moving from left to right to pass Roche and Sanchez before romping to victory.
Cavendish’s 22nd Tour de France stage win is evidence he is coming into peak form ahead of the Olympic road race on July 28, while the 27-year-old will return to his favourite hunting ground – the Champs Elysees – on Sunday for the final stage of the Tour in search of a fourth successive triumph on the most famous finish in cycling.
1) Mark Cavendish (GBR) Team Sky – 4:54.12 hours
2) Matthew Goss (AUS) – OricaGreenEDGE – same time
3) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Liquigas-Cannondale
4) Luis Leon Sanchez (SPA) – Rabobank
5) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Ag2r La Mondiale
6) Tyler Farrar (USA) – Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda
7) Borut Bozic (SLO) – Astana
8) Sébastien Hinault (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale
9) Daryl Impey (RSA) – Orica GreenEDGE
10) Samuel Dumoulin (FRA) – Cofidis
1) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky – 83:22.18 hours
2) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +2.05
3) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale +2.41
4) Jurgen Van Den Broeck (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +5.53
5) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +8.30
6) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing + 09.57
7) Haimar Zubeldia (SPA) – Radioshack-Nissan-Trek +10.11
8) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Team Europcar +10.17
9) Janez Brajkovic (SLO) – Astana +11.00
10) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ-Big Mat +11.46