Mark Cavendish was able to look over his shoulder as he sprinted to yet another sensational victory on stage 18 of the Tour de France in Bordeaux today.
And the 25-year-old HTC-Columbia sprinter’s fourth stage win of the 97th Tour and his 14th in all will see points classification rivals Alessandro Petacchi and Thor Hushovd wary of the Briton coming from behind to take the green jersey in Paris on Sunday.
The battle for the race leader’s yellow jersey will likely be decided tomorrow, with Alberto Contador (Astana) leading Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) by eight seconds ahead of the decisive 52-kilometre time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.
But today’s 198km stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux was one for the sprinters and propelled Cavendish, who won four Tour stages in 2008 and six in 2010, back into contention for a green jersey which once seemed well out of his reach.
After crashing on the first road stage to Brussels and failing to show his trademark acceleration on stage four to Reims, Cavendish was 65 points behind Hushovd and 55 adrift of Petacchi.
The Manx Missile won stages five, six, 11 and now 18 to currently sit 16 points behind maillot vert incumbent Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese) with Sunday’s Tour finale on the Champs Elysees set to determine the winner of the points prize.
“I’ll try and win on the Champs Elysees and that’s all I can do,” said Cavendish, who took his sixth stage victory of 2009 on Paris’ most famous boulevard.
“I’ll never say never when it comes to the green jersey but I lost it in the first week. It hasn’t really been my aim.
“I like to win bike races. I’ve always said, ’if I win the green jersey by winning races, that’ll do’. ”We’ll try and win again in Paris and see what happens.“
Today saw Cavendish, who felt ill with bronchitis overnight, again live up to his billing as the world’s fastest sprinter.
He defied the loss of his leadout man Mark Renshaw, who was excluded from the Tour for three headbutts to a rival on the 11th stage to Bourg-les-Valence, to power to victory.
Cavendish climbed over four Pyrenean stages at the rear of the pack, but today returned to the flat terrain he dominates.
Cavendish conversed with his former Madison partner Bradley Wiggins during the stage and the Team Sky leader was seen at the front of the pack trying to position Edvald Boasson Hagen for the sprint finish.
With Renshaw absent, Cavendish positioned himself cleverly behind first British squad Team Sky and then Hushovd’s Cervelo Test Team.
He remained composed before following Petacchi’s initial burst with 275 metres to go by powering away on his own.
Cavendish crossed the line with his arms aloft, but only after glancing over his shoulder in a show of his superiority over his rivals.
Julian Dean (Team Garmin-Transitions) was second and Petacchi third to assume the green jersey from Hushovd, who finished 14th.
Cavendish added: “It was up me to freestyle for the last kilometre. I was jumping from wheel to wheel; I was back to my old style of sprinting and it worked out. This one is for Mark (Renshaw).
“We actually planned a celebration. I was going write ’Renshaw’ on my gloves but Bob (Stapleton, the HTC-Columbia team owner) said I couldn’t do stuff like that.”
Asked what the difference in him from the beginning of the Tour and now, he responded: “Four stage wins and very, very tired legs.”
Contador and Schleck stayed out of trouble but will resume their maillot jaune duel – set to end in the Spaniard’s favour as he is the superior rider against the clock – tomorrow.
However, Contador is taking nothing for granted, despite being in pole position for his third Tour title in four years.
“Our position is more or less the same now and tomorrow it will be incredibly difficult,” he said. “It’s not a normal time-trial and I believe that Andy is really strong right now and he’s also confident.
“I think tomorrow I will really have to fight a lot to win the stage and defeat him.”
Schleck, who won yesterday’s stage to the Col du Tourmalet but could not shake Contador off his tail, conceded the race lead and a 31-second advantage after his chain slipped on Monday.
Contrary to cycling etiquette, Contador took advantage of his rival’s predicament.
The duo say the incident is forgotten and Schleck insists he can still triumph on Sunday.
Schleck, the Luxembourg time-trial champion, said: “I feel good; I’ve nothing to lose. You’re going to see a hell of a battle tomorrow.”