After the heady heights of the previous two days in the Pyrenean mountains, where Bradley Wiggins all but secured the yellow jersey, the Team Sky juggernaut that has carried all before it in this Tour de France might have been forgiven for spending today's 18th stage from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde in cruise control. But when there is a rider with the burning ambition of world champion Mark Cavendish in your ranks, there is the inclination to press harder on the gas rather than ease off it.
Cavendish produced a decisive burst of acceleration at the climax of today's stage that will restore his name to the back pages. The Manxman has spent the last week or two in the shadows of both Wiggins' bid for malliot jaune history and the race leader's rivalry with teammate Chris Froome, which has captured the imagination of British fans back home and also generated much debate and head shaking amongst the world's press assembled in France.
The shadows aren't a natural habitat for Cavendish and his performance today will return him to the spotlight that he thrives under. His work for Wiggins and Froome on this Tour is testament to his team ethic, but there is no doubting that today marks the beginning of an eight-day period that could see Cavendish steal a considerable amount of thunder from his friend and teammate Wiggins. On Sunday Cavendish will be the favourite to win the Tour's final bunch sprint on the glamorous tarmac of Champs-Elysees in Paris for the fourth year running, and one week from tomorrow he will again be favourite to win gold in the Olympic road race in London.
"That wasn't easy, it was a very tough final and climbs at the end were hard," Team Sky boss David Brailsford told Cyclingnews.
"Mark stayed right at the front all day and was never in any trouble. I think it shows what great shape he is now in. He's worked incredibly hard to get into that shape and I think it was a fantastic opportunity for the team to reward him for the teamwork that he has shown himself in the last two-and-a-half weeks.
"It's very pleasing. When he goes like that he demonstrates that he's in a class of his own."
Playing a significant role in Cavendish's victory was Edvald Boasson Hagen, who was dispatched to hunt down the breakaway riders early on in the stage. Boasson Hagen was delighted for Cavendish but was also quick to praise the efforts of the rest of the team, including Wiggins, who acted as a lead out man in the final few hundred metres as the pack tried to close on Nicolas Roche and Luis Leon Sanchez.
"The plan was to set up another sprint but there was so much attacking that I got the job to get into the break," Boasson Hagen said.
"I got there and suddenly nobody wanted to let the group go away. Finally there was the sprint and Bradley and the whole team did a really great job in the lead out there and it was fantastic that Mark could take the victory."
With tomorrow's time trial apparently made for Wiggins and Paris on Sunday holding an irresistible allure for Cavendish, this final weekend of what is increasingly seeming like a watershed Tour de France looks odds-on to be draped in Union Jacks.
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