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Hello and welcome to the Cyclingnews coverage of stage 18 of the Tour de France.
The mountains are behind us now and the peloton faces 198km of flat roads between Salies-de-Béarn and Bordeaux.
Expect a rapid finish in that great amphitheatre of sprinting on the banks of the Garonne.
The peloton of 171 riders is in the neutral zone rolling out ahead to the real start. The Tour isn't quite over, but those riders who made it as far as the top of the Tourmalet yesterday know that they should now make it to Paris. Today's stage will sting the legs of course and finishing inside the time limit will be a concern for some in a long time trial like Saturday's, especially after three tough weeks...
The flag is dropped and the racing is underway. Seemingly ideal racing conditions facing the riders today. Warm sunshine and clear blue skies, with the temperature a pleasant 25 degrees.
It's a rapid start to the stage. Even at this point in the race there's no such thing as a relaxed moment on the Tour. A seven-man break has jumped clear and has about 10 seconds on the peloton.
Matti Breschel, Remy Di Gregorio, Yarsoslav Popovych, Marcus Burghardt, Carlos Barredo, Linus Gerdemann and Mathieu Perget are the men in the break.
The peloton isn't happy to let them go however, and they're soon brought to heel at the 9km point.
There's an intermediate sprint 29.5km into today's stage at Castelnau-Chalosse so it's hard to see a group getting clear without a fight before then. The mighty Thor Hushovd is in green this morning, but his lead over the increasingly-controversial Alessandro Petacchi is a mere 4 points. Meanwhile, the fastest man in the race appears to be Mark Cavendish, and although he is a hefty 29 points down on Hushovd he remains an outside threat, especially if he wins today and in Paris.
Matti Breschel is especially active today. He's sparked another move off the front and their gap is a little healthier. He's been joined by Daniel Oss, Benoit Vaugrenard and Jerome Pineau.
Meanwhile BMC are clearly keen to put a gloss on their Tour. Burghardt is off the front of the bunch again trying to get across to the Breschel quartet and Alessandro Ballan has come with him.
Burghardt and Ballan have been swallowed by the peloton, but the escapees have opened out a lead of 30 seconds. HTC-Columbia and Lampre have come to the front of the bunch now, they want to bring it all back together ahead of the sprint.
Jerome Pineau has been a wonderful contributor the narrative of this year's Tour. His teammate and friend Sylvain Chavanel may have taken the stage wins and days in yellow, but Pineau has done more than his share of rampaging off the front and he's at it again today. The talented Frenchman appears to have rediscovered his confidence after winning a stage at the Giro in May.
Pineau wore the polka jersey with some distinction earlier in the race and meanwhile the man who will wear it to Paris has punctured. Anthony Charteau will get back on easily, the peloton appears to have slowed a little.
The gap is suddenly out to 2:15 for the four up front, it looks as though we have found our day-long breakaway a little earlier than anticipated. The sprinters' teams have sat up and are keeping their powder dry for the fast run in to Bordeaux.
There are still some HTC-Columbia riders at the head of the peloton, but with the gap stretching out to 2:50, they clearly aren't putting the hammer down.
Speaking of which, Lance Armstrong, the man who used to be the hammer but is now the nail (his words), met with French president Nicolas Sarkozy after yesterday's stage atop the Tourmalet.
Armstrong seemed pleased to meet Sarkozy again, not least because a television interview alongside the President of France at the Tour guarantees a relatively soft line of questioning from French journalists for the Texan.
Meanwhile the break stretches out its lead to 3:25 at the first intermediate sprint taken by Matti Breschel.
One man who was rather less impressed by Monsieur le Président's visit was Jurgen Van den Broeck. He'll be relieved to know that there will be no presidential visits on today’s stage. It seems that the Belgian grimpeur had not one but two contretemps with M. Sarkozy and his entourage after the finish on the Tourmalet yesterday.
This break seems to be fairly well established now, with a lead of 3:25 over the peloton. They'll be left out here for the day before HTC-Columbia and Lampre-Farnese Vini wind things up in the finale.
The Tour makes its 80th visit to Bordeaux today. Only Paris has featured more often as a stage town in La Grande Boucle. Like Pau, Bordeaux benefits from its strategic position as a natural stage town for the race either on its entry to or exit from the Pyrenees.
It also appear to have been blessed with a succession of municipal councils who have actively sought to host the great race. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of some of the other big cities of France. The centenary Tour in 2003, when the organisers sought to trace the outline of the original route, was one of the few times in recent years that the race has visited some of the major metropolitan areas outside of Paris and Bordeaux.
The Tour has been coming to Bordeaux ever since the first race back in 1903. Charles Laeser of Switzerland was the winner and in doing so became the first foreigner to win a stage of the Tour de France. It was the shortest of that first Tour’s six stages, a 268km run from Toulouse and it came on the back of three consecutive rest days. Who says things were tougher back in the day?
It’s also worth noting that Laeser actually abandoned the Tour on the previous stage but the rules of the time allowed riders who had abandoned the overall race to continue to contest individual stages.
There are a number of sprinters in the bunch today who could have done with that sort of à la carte approach, not least Robbie McEwen. He had a hellish time of it getting through the mountains after crashing in week one, but now he’s ready for the sprinters’ stages this weekend.
To return briefly to Laeser and the 1903 Tour, lest anyone think those early convicts of the road had it easy, the next day the peloton pedalled 425km to Nantes and the final stage was not a relaxed jaunt around Paris but a 471km epic from Nantes to the capital!
The four up front are working smoothly together. It's a nicely balanced group. As we know, Jerome Pineau is always generous in his efforts in a breakaway and so too is Benoit Vaugrenard. Meanwhile Matti Breschel is a fast finisher with a lot of class and young Daniel Oss has been making a name for himself both as a lead-out man and as a finisher in his own right.
An average speed of 45.4km/h for the first hour's racing. The speed should settle slightly over the next hour, though not by too much, these are fast roads.
There's a tailwind today to keep the pace high all the way the Bordeaux.
In the overall standings, of course, Alberto Contador leads Andy Schleck by eight seconds. The general consensus is that Contador should defend his lead quite comfortably, but when the margins are that tight anything is possible. In some respects it's a pity that there aren't still time bonuses on offer at the Tour. It would have been a fascinating sprint atop the Tourmalet yesterday...
The pace is beginning to pick up a little in the bunch and the gap has come down slightly. They certainly won't want to let the break open out a lead of anything much over the three or so minutes they have now.
There are two riders celebrating their 34th birthdays today, although neither one is here today.
One is Judith Arndt of HTC-Columbia Women's team. The German most recently finished second overall at the Giro d'Italia Femminile. She also took the national time trial title, and was second in the road race. While she doesn't have her usual number of wins so far this season, she has a good measure of top finishes.
The other celebrant today is Jörg Jaksche, who has apparently given up hope of returning to the peloton. He was one of those shut out of the Tour de France 2006 due to Operacion Puerto, and a year later he offered up a detailed confession of doping usage throughout his career. Jaksche was suspended for a year, and attempted a comeback, but was not successful in his efforts.
Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJ) is riding strongly on the front of the break. He had a strong underage career in France and has since developed into a very solid pro. For his debut Tour in 2006, Vaugrenard was shadowed by Paul Kimmage as he saw the Breton as the Tour debutante most similar to himself in 1986. Kimmage's verdict on Vaugrenard's Tour diary? "Benoit's a better cyclist than I was, but I showed more promise as a journalist."
3:10 the lead for the breakaway now as they roll through the pine forestry of the Landes.
Alberto Contador punctures at the rear of the peloton. The pace isn't too high so he'll get back on without any problems. And no, Andy Schleck won't attack....
For those of you playing our Easton-Cyclingnews Wheelset a Day Giveaway during the Tour de France, here is your trivia question for the day:
What was the narrowest margin by which the Tour has been won?
For a hint,click here.
Clouds looming in the skies above now but hopefully it won't rain before we get to the finish in Bordeaux.
Lance Armstrong is back at his team car chatting to Johan Bruyneel. RadioShack are leading the team classification by over 8 minutes from Caisse d'Epargne. Provided they don't melt down tomorrow, they should win that category in Paris.
Lampre have come to the front now and are beginning to up the pace every so slightly. They won't want to catch the break too soon but they want to keep the gap in check too.
Bordeaux became a cornerstone of the early Tour, as the first eight editions of the race all had stage finishes in the city. It also featured every year between 1925 and the outbreak of World War II, but it was in the postwar period that it began to build its reputation as a sprinters' finish.
Back in those days, stages finished on the steep banks of the Lescure Velodrome rather than the graceful banks of the Garonne like they do now. Andre Darrigade, Rik Van Looy and Walter Godefroot were among the fastmen to triumph at the Lescure.
It's England's Barry Hoban, however, who enjoys an interesting footnote in Tour history. His win in Bordeaux in 1975 was the last time a Tour stage was won in a velodrome.
Incidentally 1975 was the first time the Tour finished on the Champs-Elysees, with the organisers having decided to bring the Arrivée out of the Parc des Princes and in to the heart of the capital.
HTC-Columbia and Lampre are sharing the work on the front of the peloton. Meanwhile Alberto Contador is surrounded by a phalanx of powder blue Astana jerseys just a little further back.
It's interesting to see Daniel Oss off the front today. The man from Trento has been developing on his burgeoning reputation as a fast finisher, and he was 6th on stage one.
The breakaway group are zipping through some narrow tree-lined roads on the run-in to the town of Sabres.
Now the breakaway are at the feed zone. If they want to stay away until the finale they'll need to take advantage of the peloton slowing slightly as it passes through in a couple of minutes.
Vaugrenard is on the front of the break again, but they're riding without any real conviction as though they don't expect to survive out front to Bordeaux.
As expected, the pace slackened somewhat in the second hour of racing. 40.6km/h to give us an average of 43km/h thus far.
Lampre and HTC-Columbia are still share the pace-setting duties in the peloton and keeping the gap at the 2:40 mark.
The bunch is riding through the Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne, a magnificent woodland area.
Matti Breschel was riding very strongly in support of Fabian Cancellara this spring until a knee injury halted his progress. He's put in a solid shift for Andy Schleck these past three weeks, and now it looks as though he's building some form for the latter stages of the season. In 2008 he took a bronze medal at the World Championships in Varese and he may well be aiming to be in the mix in Geelong this year.
Lampre and HTC-Columbia are still at the head of affairs back in the peloton as they keep an eye on the break's progress up front.
Some other great sprinters to have won in Bordeaux include Eric Vanderarden (1985), Jean-Paul Van Poppel (1988) and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (1993).
A sharp left hand bend for the peloton, they had to slow dramatically coming around there. Thankfully, everybody has made it through unscathed.
Daniel Oss is looking very comfortable in this breakaway.
Long straight roads through the woodland towards Bordeaux now. It's hard to see how the break can possibly stay clear today. Lampre and HTC are simply keeping things ticking over, holding the gap at around 2:20.
Lance Armstrong is smiling in the middle of the bunch. To his credit, the American seemed to become considerably more relaxed once it became apparent that he didn't have the legs to be a factor in the general classification this year. He may be facing into a rather more turbulent period after the end of the Tour mind.
As well as being synonymous with sprint finishes, Bordeaux also had a spell as the capital of World Hour Record attempts. After Milan's Vigorelli and Mexico City before it, the Velodrome du Lac became the place to go to try and break the record in the early 1990s
Chris Boardman kicked it off in 1993, and the following year the record was raised no fewer than four times by three men: Graeme Obree, Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger. By year's end, Rominger had brought the record up to 55.291km/h.
Chris Boardman then put the record on the shelf in Manchester in 1996 with 56.375km/h using the now-outlawed "Superman" position. Meanwhile Bordeaux's status as the perfect setting for a record attempt was dealt a blow by Evgeni Berzin's shambolic effort in 1997.
Back on the road to Bordeaux, meanwhile, and the quartet up front still have 2:24 over a peloton that is happy to give them another hour or so in front of the cameras.
Francaise des Jeux's new all-white strip has had quite an airing off the front in this year's Tour. For the most part it's been the irrepressible Sandy Casar flying the flag for Marc Madiot's men, but Vaugrenard has had a few sorties of his own before now.
The gap is hovering just above two minutes now, but the breakaway will stay clear for a little longer. In the final 30km we'll see the pace shoot up rapidly in the peloton.
It's a strange scenario for the four up front. In their heart of hearts they know that they won't stay clear until the finish and that's probably why they aren't riding with quite the same fanaticism we saw from similar breaks earlier in the Tour.
Speaking of fanaticism, there's a healthy smattering of support on the roadside and among their number is Tom Cruise. He appeared to be standing with Cameron Diaz. It's a sign of the escapees' hopes of stage victory in Bordeaux later that even they appeared to slow and do a double take as they went by.
We haven't had any official confirmation as yet, but it seems as though Pineau and Vaugrenard are doing the longest turns on the front of this break.
Now Tom Cruise is now waving from a car just in front of the peloton and France Television's cameras are lapping it up. So is Cruise.
Meanwhile Lampre continue drilling on the front of the peloton, seemingly nonplussed by the whole affair.
Maverick's presence seems to have unsettled the Petacchi's wingmen to some degree, the gap to the break is gone back up to 2:35.
Meanwhile the France Television cameramen seem to have now officially given up on following the race and are hassling Cameron Diaz.
Alberto Contador is looking calm and collected in the peloton. It will be interesting to see if he time trials as well tomorrow as he did at Annency last year. In any case, he may not have to, he just needs to match Andy Schleck.
Ivan Basso is chatting with Lance Armstrong in the peloton. The Italian has been suffering with bronchitis in the last week of the Tour and his overall challenge crumbled accordingly. Even before that, he never came close to replicating the form he showed in his last start in 2005. He hadn't been to the Tour since due to his involvement in Operacion Puerto.
Mark Cavendish is in relaxed form today too. He hams it up for the cameras by miming a whip and pretending to be HTC's slave driver. It seems that the poor peloton have been forced to resort to tomfoolery to get the cameramen's minds back on the task in hand.
Andy Schleck is back at race doctor Gerard Porte's car. Luckily Tom Cruise is slowing things up front so Fabian Cancellara won't have to...
Schleck waves away the cameras, so it's not quite clear what the Luxembourger's ailment is.
It appears that Schleck is receiving treatment for a saddle sore. That could cause serious problems for Schleck in tomorrow's time trial.
Daniel Oss leads through the sprint at Hostens and the four in front have 2:27 over the peloton.
No further news on Schleck's problem, but it appears that he has rejoined the peloton.
Some Milram jerseys on the front now, working for Gerard Ciolek.
We haven't seen Cervelo on the front yet today. At the start this morning, Hushovd said that his men would ride at the head of the bunch if the situation required it, but clearly the breakaway is already well-patrolled.
Hushovd is battling to defend his green jersey. He said this morning that he will ride 100% to win the stage and not just to pick off a high placing. He was also hopeful that the Pyrenees might have drawn a little of the sting out of Petacchi's sprint.
The break seems to be riding with a little more urgency now. Jerome Pineau in particular seems keen for them to stay clear as long as possible, even if he must know that they can't possibly survive all the way to the line.
The gap is still around the two minute mark. The bunch has kept a fairly tight rein on the breakaway. There was never a chance that it would build up any kind of insurmountable lead.
The four up front are still working together on the front, with just over 20 miles to the finish.
Mark Cavendish is pedalling with great fluidity in the peloton. He's really come back in to form after a difficult start to his Tour and a disastrous early season. Meanwhile, Alessandro Petacchi doesn't look quite as comfortable, but all will be revealed on the Quais Louis XVIII.
As expected, the gap is beginning to tumble as we get in to the final 30km. Lampre are driving on the front now and the break's lead is down to 1:20.
The pace is very obviously gone up now, the peloton is beginning to stretch out as the gap tumbles to a minute.
Luis Leon Sanchez has punctured but Vasily Kyrienka is towing him safely back up to the main field.
Anthony Charteau is midway down the bunch in his polka dot jersey. So long as he stays upright between now and Paris, the King of the Mountains title is his.
HTC-Columbia and Lampre are sharing the pace-setting at the head of the peloton and the gap to the leaders drops under a minute.
It's a perfectly flat run-in to the finish as the bunch bowls through the vineyards of Bordeaux.
Gerdemann and Wegmann go to the front for Milram and press so hard that they briefly escape off the front. HTC are back on the front now and the gap is 32 seconds to the breakaway.
Jerome Pineau attempts to jump clear of the breakaway.
Pineau is reeled in and then Daniel Oss goes and he immediately opens up a decent advantage.
Oss puts his head down and goes for it, while his three erstwhile companions have sat up and been caught by the peloton.
Oss is putting up a good showing here, the young Italian was looking strong in the break and is impressing here.
The peloton eased slightly when it swallowed up Pineau, Vaugrenard and Breschel, and Oss built on his advantage accordingly. Still, with 10km still to go, they will surely bring Oss back without too much difficulty.
Oss is putting up fierce resistance, but HTC are beginning to wind things up in earnest now as Tony Martin moves up to the front.
As soon as Tony Martin comes to the front the gap tumbles. It's down to 15 seconds now.
Damiano Cunego is up near the front now, working for Petacchi. Oss' face is a mask of pain, but he knows the catch is inevitable at this point.
5km to go for Oss and 11 seconds is the lead. The pace is scorching in the peloton now.
Oss is just about hanging on, but he's really suffering now.
Cervelo have come to the front now too, in support of Thor Hushovd.
Oss is caught 3.5km from the line
Linus Gerdemann jumps clear but his attack lasts all of 300 metres with Tony Martin on patrol for HTC.
Sky's black jerseys at the head of the bunch now in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen.
It's the first time we've seen Sky offer him full support on this Tour, they're desperate to salvage a terrible Tour for them.
Sky's pace is high under the red kite. Flecha on the front.
Freire on Boasson Hagen's wheel.
Cervelo lead it out.
Hushovd goes first but Cavendish rips clear!
Cavendish wins ahead of Julian Dean and Alessandro Petacchi. Petacchi should have done enough to move back into the green jersey.
Huhsovd went early and faded. When Petacchi went he had Cavendish on his wheel and the Manxman had the race won 200m from the line. His best sprint in the Tour to date.
Provisional stage result:
1 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team HTC - Columbia 4:37:09
2 Julian Dean (NZl) Garmin - Transitions
3 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini
4 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Team Katusha
5 Oscar Freire Gomez (Spa) Rabobank
6 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team
7 Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
8 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
9 Grega Bole (Slo) Lampre-Farnese Vini
10 Ruben Perez Moreno (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi
General classification after stage 18
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana
2 Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 0:00:08
3 Samuel Sánchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:03:32
4 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 0:03:53
5 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:05:27
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 0:06:41
7 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:07:03
8 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Transitions 0:09:18
9 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-Doimo 0:10:12
10 Christopher Horner (USA) Team Radioshack 0:10:37
Hushovd could only manage 13th on the stage, he'll be very disappointed with that. He'll have his work cut out to wrest the green jersey from Alessandro Petacchi now.
A dominant sprint win for Cavendish. He even had time to look around as he crossed the line. When he's on form like this he is basically unbeatable.
Overall, Alberto Contador still has those 8 seconds in hand over Andy Schleck ahead of tomorrow's time trial.
Thanks for joining us for today's stage to Bordeaux.
We'll be back with our live coverage tomorrow for the decisive time trial.
The full report and results as well as a selection of photography from today's racing will be online soon, and there will be the usual in-depth analysis and news from the peloton on Cyclingnews to come between now and tomorrow's showdown between Schleck and Contador.