British sprint king Mark Cavendish produced a stunning finish to claim victory on the 18th stage of the Tour de France, a 226 km ride between Blagnac and Brive-La-Gaillarde Friday.
Sky teammate and compatriot Bradley Wiggins came over the finish line seconds later with his 2min 05sec overall lead on British teammate Chris Froome intact.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali is still third overall at 2:41.
Wiggins, who is set to become Britain’s first winner of the world’s biggest bike race on Sunday, played a starring role for his Sky teammate Cavendish in what was a technical but thrilling finale into Brive.
Cavendish, who won stage two to take his tally to 21, has had to shelve his ambitions in the race this year as Sky took aim at overall victory.
And he admitted it took some persuasion to convince his team bosses he could grab his 22nd stage win.
“It’s incredible. We came here with the aim of winning the yellow jersey, and we’re first and second on GC (general classification),” said Cavendish.
“You can’t ask for anything more than that.
“It did put my sprint chances on the back foot. But today I said, ‘please just give me a chance in the sprint’. And then Brad jumped in and said, ‘yes, we’ll go for the sprint, we’ll lead it out'”
Despite a breakaway escaping early in the stage they were never allowed to build a lead of more than three and a half minutes.
A number of attacks were launched in the closing kilometres but with the gap coming down steadily the sprinters’ teams started to pull at the front in anticipation of a possible bunch finish.
As planned on the team bus prior to the stage, Sky appeared at the front of the chase in the closing few kilometres with the unmissable yellow jersey of Wiggins leading the chasing pack in the closing 1.5 km.
Norwegian teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who had been involved in the earlier breakaway, then took over the lead-out but in the end Cavendish made the win his own.
In the closing 400 metres Irishman Nicolas Roche, seeing the peloton closing in, made a bid for victory with Spaniard Luis Leon Snachez sticking on his wheel.
But with the finish line in sight Cavendish emerged from nowhere and dug deep to deliver a trademark turn of speed that handed him his second stage win of the race and 22nd of his career.
Sanchez and Roche, who would eventually finish fourth and fifth, could only gesture in disbelief.
Australia’s Matt Goss, of Orica-GreenEdge, was second just ahead of Slovakian Peter Sagan of Liquigas.