BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, France -- Mark Cavendish won the 18th stage of the Tour de France in a sprint as countryman and race leader Bradley Wiggins moved ever closer to becoming the first British champion.
The ride along four small hills took the pack 222.5 kilometres from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, seen as a transitional stage before today's time trial.
Wiggins, Cavendish and the Sky team made it look easy with an almost textbook sprint setup. With about 1.3 kilometres left, Wiggins -- rare for a yellow-jersey holder -- took the head of the pack and chased down six breakaway riders, then peeled away with about a kilometre to go.
The Sky train motored ahead and Cavendish, showing he's perhaps the world's most explosive rider, whirred around the remaining escapees in the last few hundred metres to win by a couple of bike lengths.
Luis Leon Sanchez, seeing Cavendish speed by, appeared to sigh with resignation at the Briton's velocity. By the end, Cavendish beat Matt Goss of Australia in second and Peter Sagan of Slovakia in third.
Cavendish, who has been largely overshadowed on Sky by Wiggins, collected his second stage win of this Tour and his 22nd career Tour stage victory --- the same number as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
"I just used the slipstreams," said Cavendish. "I have used this technique to win 22 stages... it's a magic number. There's one more to go."
Wiggins and Cavendish shared a long hug after the finish.
"It was dangerous in the final. This morning, we decided to put the train in place and help Mark in the final," Wiggins said. "It's my gift to him."
With 14 of 22 teams competing this year without a stage win yet, the day's ride got off to a furious pace, with riders looking for momentary glory by breaking away. But the pack held close, never letting the escapees get more than about 31/2 minutes ahead.
The top standings didn't change. Overall, Wiggins has a lead of two minutes and five seconds over Sky teammate Christopher Froome, in second. Italy's Vincenzo Nibali was third, 2:41 behind. Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia was sixth, 9:57 back.
The final big showdown comes today in the 53.5-kilometre time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. Riders will leave one by one from a ramp in the race against the clock, in reverse order of the standings.
-- The Associated Press