Mark Cavendish returned to the forefront of the Tour de France by unleashing a surge of power in the finish to win stage 18 in Bive-la-Gaillarde, taking the better of his fellow sprinters in superior fashion. The World Champion, who up until today put his Tour ambitions on the back burner in favour of working for overall leader Bradley Wiggins, took his 22nd career victory at the race by out-sprinting the remainder of the breakaway, Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and Nicolas Roche (AG2R) in the very last meters, as well as fellow bunch sprinters Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and green jersey leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas).
Cavendish proved to be not only the fastest but also the smartest of the sprinters. As the remaining attackers Sanchez and Roche persisted in the final 200 metres before the finish line, the Manxman sensed just the right moment bridge up to them and overtake them with an incredible finishing speed.
"I'm very very happy with this victory," the Sky rider said. "We didn't know if it was going to be a sprint today, it was a hard stage. It would have been easy for my guys just to cruise to Paris after the mountains, but on the bus this morning, I was like 'can I have a sprint, please, just let me have a sprint' and Brad supported me."
Sky sheltered Cavendish through the transitional and hilly stage, and it was the wearer of the yellow jersey himself who led the bunch out to catch the remaining attackers up the road once the race entered the town of Brive.
"We decided to put the train back on the rails, as the finale was very dangerous," Wiggins explained on French TV. "It was better to protect our overall positions and it was useful to Mark. This way, we were able to help him a bit, and he won - it's my gift to him."
Cavendish certainly appreciated the support. "It was so nice to be lead out by first and second on GC, then Edvald who'd been in the break all day, and was still be able to commit," he praised his teammates. "They all did it so smoothly. we didn't want to catch the break too early, because Lotto had Hansen in the front and if we caught them with one kilometer to go, then they'd have him in their train. So we went to catch them as close to the line as possible.
"I saw Sanchez from far out and I knew I had to put all my chips onto the table. With 600m to go, I said to myself, 'I go now, if someone passes me, they pass me.' But nobody did. I used the slipstream of the guys to come past at 600m, caught the other ones at 400, come past them, caught Sanchez with 200 and went in."
Much has been said and written about Sky's double objective at this Tour de France, the yellow jersey as well as stage victories and the green jersey for Cavendish. In the end, the overall victory seems secured with two days to go for the British squad, but one has to admit that the feasibility of pursuing two distinct goals such as these in one team has shown to be limited.
Still, Cavendish was adamant that he "was always going to excited and proud to be part of the opportunity to win the yellow jersey. We have first and second on GC, this is out fourth stage victory this year in the Tour. But obviously, it hasn't been the easiest thing as it left me hungry for a sprint, especially as I'm used to winning five stages here every year.
"So it's been great to be part of this team and what we're doing, but it's also put me in a bit of a crooked situation. I'm part of a team but I'm not doing what I can do as an individual rider. It's like Wayne Rooney playing defence - you can still win the match, but you can't do your part in that to the best you deserve. But today it's been settled, we scored the goal."
Cavendish even mused that his support role for Wiggins in this Tour may have helped him win in Brive. "I haven't sprinted that often this year, so I knew I could go from far out today," he admitted. "I planned to go at 400 or 350 metres anyway today, but finally I went from just a bit further out. That increased my margin and it may have looked a bit more impressive - maybe it was."
In view of the Olympic road race, which is just over one week away, this victory was of course an important one. "Also in the way that I did it," he added. "It wasn't an easy stage. It was lumpy, and we did over 2000 meters of altitude all in all. There was a head wind all day but we still averaged over 45 km/h, strung out in one line. There was times I was suffering but I was able to recover quickly and sprint with the acceleration I have. It gave me confidence and showed me that I've come out of this Tour de France in good enough condition."