Mark Cavendish won his fourth stage of the Tour de France with ease in Bordeaux, proving that he can adapt his tactics to cope with the loss of his chief lead-out man, Mark Renshaw.
And Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre took third behind Julian Dean to take the green jersey from Thor Hushovd, who could finish only 14th.
After such a cool and calculated victory, you could not bet against the HTC-Columbia man Cavendish claiming his fifth stage of the race on the Champs-Elysèes on Sunday. And that would be a remarkable return after he endured a difficult first half of the year.
It was the 14th stage win of Cavendish's Tour career and today's victory equalled his haul of four victories in the 2008 Tour. He even had time to look around and enjoy the sight of clear daylight between him and second-placed Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions).
Twenty five years ago, Britain's Barry Hoban won the last of his eight Tour stages on the old velodrome in Bordeaux. That stage, in 1975, was the last time a stage of the Tour finished on a velodrome. It was also the year the Champs-Elysèes hosted the end of the race for the first time.
Bordeaux has not been visited as often in recent years but, after Paris, it is the second-most popular finish town in the Tour's history. Bordeaux and Paris are the cities that seal a sprinter's reputation. Almost all the greats of Tour de France sprinting have won in the city, from Freddy Maertens to Djamoladine Abdoujaparov, Eric Vanderaerden to Erik Zabel. Now Cavendish has added his name to that list.
Cavendish had to alter his approach slightly, after Mark Renshaw was thrown out of the Tour for head-butting Dean and cutting up Tyler Farrar at Bourg-lès-Valence last week.
He said: "I was able to jump from train to train. The guys did an incredible job again, riding to keep the gap down. Bernie Eisel did a great job in the lead-out and Sky were up there too. It was great to see guys who are my friends up there."
And he revealed he has been battling illness as the race slogged through the Pyrenees. "I had a fever all last night, I didn't know if I was going to start this morning. I was sweating all night and felt pretty bad. But there's only two more days and 150km left now."
It was a lowkey stage of the race, with the bunch allowing a four-man group to get away early and stay away late. The riders were Benoit Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), Daniel Oss (Liquigas), Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) and Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step). Their lead was never much more than three minutes because Cavendish's HTC-Columbia team and Lampre, riding for Alessandro Petacchi, wanted to keep things under control.
With 15km to go, Oss went for a long one on his own and rode very strongly, holding off the bunch until 3.5km were left. By then HTC-Columbia had closed the gap down and had the pace very high.
Team Sky took over and lined it out. Michael Barry and Thomas Lofkvist did a turn on the front before Bradley Wiggins took over as they went under the kilometre-to-go banner. Wiggins set a fast pace before handing over to Juan Antonio Flecha and Geraint Thomas, who were leading out Edvald Voasson Hagen.
However, Thor Hushovd's Cervélo team came up the opposite side of the road and overtook Sky.
Cavendish was on Hushovd's wheel but he leapt across the road when Petacchi went down the left-hand side. And then he pulled out and pulled clear.
Dean was second with Petacchi third. That was enough for the Lampre rider to take the green jersey - presumably scotching reports that Lampre had been asked to ease back and not embarrass the race by taking the points competition. It was revealed that Petacchi is under investigation for doping by the authorities in Italy.
Tomorrow's penultimate stage is a 52-kilometre time trial between Bordeaux and Pauillac. It will decide the Tour. Alberto Contador will start the day eight seconds clear of Andy Schleck.
Stage 18: Salies-de-Bearn - Bordeaux
1. Mark Cavendish (GB) HTC-Columbia in 4-37-09
2. Julian Dean (NZ) Garmin-Transitions
3. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre
4. Robbie McEwen (Aus) Katusha
5. Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Team Sky
7. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma
8. Jose Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
9. Grega Bole (Slo) Lampre
10. Ruben Perez (Spa) Euskaltel all same time
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 88-09-48
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 8sec
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-32
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 3-53
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 5-27
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 6-41
7. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 7-03
8. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 9-18
9. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 10-12
10. Chris Horner (USA) Radioshack at 10-37
Points competition Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre
King of the mountains Anthony Charteau (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom
Young rider Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank
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Sports journalist Lionel Birnie has written professionally for Sunday Times, Procycling and of course Cycling Weekly. He is also an author, publisher, and co-founder of The Cycling Podcast. His first experience covering the Tour de France came in 1999, and he has presented The Cycling Podcast with Richard Moore and Daniel Friebe since 2013. He founded Peloton Publishing in 2010 and has ghostwritten and published the autobiography of Sean Kelly, as well as a number of other sports icons.
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