It was TGIF at the Tour as HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish won a sleeper of a stage from Salies-de-Béarn to Bordeaux.
Daniel Oss (Liquigas) nearly stole a march on the sprinters, leaping away from a tiring four-man break with 14km to race and holding the peloton at bay for the next 10km.
But they finally caught him, and while Team Sky seemed best situated in the finale, Cavendish paid them no mind and hit the afterburners to take his fourth stage win of the 97th Tour with nothing but daylight between the best and the rest. Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions) took second with Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese) third.
There were no changes in the overall standings. Alberto Contador (Astana) remains in yellow with Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) second at eight seconds back and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) third at 3:32
The wearin’ of the green
With the mountains done for this year, the 198km 18th stage was one for the rivals for the green jersey. It was a tight contest:
1. Thor Hushovd, Cérvelo TestTeam, 191 points
2. Alessandro Petacchi, Lampre-Farnese, 187
3. Mark Cavendish, Team HTC-Columbia, 162
4. Joaquin Rojas Jose, Caisse d’Epargne, 149
5. Robbie McEwen, Katusha, 138
With a single rider able to earn as many 47 points, that meant any one of the top four could wear the green at day’s end, with Hushovd and Petacchi being the most likely.
There were two intermediate sprints, the first on rolling terrain at Castelnau-Chalosse (29.5km) and the second on mostly flat roads in Hostens (150.5km). The first three riders to reach those spots would earn 6, 4 and 2 points, respectively. Still more points were on tap at the finish, with the winner earning 35 and 25th place getting a single point.
Two jersey competitions were already over: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) locked up the polka-dot jersey on the Col du Tourmalet, and Schleck was firmly in charge of the white jersey awarded to the best young rider.
A third seemed to be — but yellow jersey Alberto Contador still had that 52km time trial to get through before the final parade into Paris.
Sunny skies, sedate pace
The peloton was just 171 riders strong as it rolled out under sunny skies with scattered clouds and temperatures around 21 C (70 F). Lampre’s Simon Spilak pulled out early in Thursday’s stage — he had been suffering since a crash earlier in the Tour and it finally caught up with him.
A break of seven tried to go at 5km, but was pulled back. At 11km a successful escape formed, with Oss, Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), Benoit Vaugrenard (FdJ) and Jerome Pineau (Quick Step).
At 25km, the leaders were 2:15 ahead of the peloton and building their advantage. The lead topped out around three minutes and pretty much stayed there through the 80km point, with HTC-Columbia and Lampre monitoring the gap for Cavendish and Petacchi.
The break’s advantage dipped to 2:25 going into the feed zone, then went back out to 3:35 as the peloton slowed to collect its lunch. Mealtime over, the peloton returned to work and brought the break back to within 2:30 with 92km to go.
And that was the state of affairs for the better part of quite some time. The most excitement along the road came when Schleck dropped back for a chat with the race doctor, irritably waving away an inquisitive camera moto as though it were a giant mosquito.
With 42km to race the break held to an advantage of just over two minutes. Milram had come forward for Gerald Ciolek, and the bunch was encountering some blustery crosswinds off the Atlantic. It finally proved too much for quick Step’s Francesco Reda, who abandoned the race.
The chase picks up
With 30km to go the bunch had clipped the break’s advantage to less than two minutes. Five kilometers later it was just 70 seconds. The chase was on at 60 kph, and it was a bad time for anyone to flat — as did Luis-Léon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne), 11th overall at 12:46, who punctured his front tire and began chasing back after a quick wheel change. Teammates Vasil Kiryienka and José Ivan Gutierrez dropped back to provide a tow through the vineyards.
The break still had a minute with 20km to race and the quartet had yet to raise the white flag. But Milram was driving hard behind, nibbling away at the deficit, taking it to a half-minute with 15km to go.
HTC took the front next and continued pushing on, raising the pace to 70 kph.
Ahead, anticipating the catch, Pineau and Oss traded attacks, and it was the 23-year-old Liquigas rider, riding his first Tour, who quickly took a lead on the break with 14km remaining. His erstwhile mates were quickly swept up, but Oss clung to a 38-second lead.
Ten kilometers from Bordeaux the peloton seemed to ease off the gas a bit amid the road furniture as Oss soldiered along alone. But then the clock started ticking again, and with 6km to go his advantage was just a dozen seconds.
HTC, Lampre and Cervélo were massing at the front. Milram and Team Sky were there, too, betting on Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Five kilometers from the finish Oss was still out front, but only just, by 10 seconds. He couldn’t stay there — the chase dragged him back with 3.5km to race, and the sprinters’ teams set about arranging their trains.
The final kilometers
Sky massed at the front with 2.5km to go after a long pull by HTC’s Tony Martin. Michael Barry drilled it, then pulled off. Thomas Lövkvist took over with Bradley Wiggins next, and with 1km to go Boasson Hagen had his best chance yet at a stage win in the 97th Tour.
He wouldn’t get it. Brett Lancaster led out green jersey Hushovd, but Cavendish was on his wheel. Petacchi hovered nearby and then went for it, veering left to punch it straight up the middle.
Forget about it. It was Cav’ once again, laying down a terrific acceleration, glancing over his left shoulder and then raising his hands skyward. It was his 14th career Tour stage win and his fourth in this year’s race.
As for Hushovd, he finished 14th on the day and saw the green jersey ripped from his shoulders once more by the third-placed Petacchi, who takes a 10-point advantage going into the finale in Paris.
The outcome of the entire Tour could rest on 51 lonesome kilometers through the Bordeaux vineyards. This time trial course is flat to rolling, and will prove to be a true test of the GC favorites’ endurance at the end of three weeks.
The Tour last held a time trial in Bordeaux in 1996. Bjarne Riis kept his yellow jersey on that stage, despite losing 2:18 to stage winner Jan Ullrich, while Miguel Induráin took second, 56 seconds back. More on stage 19.
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Best Young Rider (GC)
Team GC leader