BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, France — Bradley Wiggins moved closer to becoming the first British champion of the Tour de France while teammate and countryman Mark Cavendish won the 18th stage in a sprint.
The ride along four small hills Friday took the pack 138 miles from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, a transitional stage before Saturday’s time trial. The three-week race ends Sunday in Paris.
Wiggins, Cavendish and the Sky team made it look easy with an almost textbook sprint setup. With less than a mile to go, Wiggins took the head of the pack and chased down six breakaway riders, then peeled away.
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 yards to win by a couple of bike lengths.
Luis Leon Sanchez, seeing Cavendish speed by, appeared to sigh with resignation. Cavendish beat Matt Goss of Australia, with Peter Sagan of Slovakia in third place.
“It was dangerous in the final,” said Wiggins, who hugged Cavendish at the finish. “This morning we decided to put the train in place and help Mark in the final. It’s my gift to him.”
Cavendish has been largely overshadowed on Sky by Wiggins. He won a stage for the second time on this Tour, giving him 22 stage victories for his career and tying him with seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
“I just used the slipstreams,” Cavendish said. “I have used this technique to win 22 stages. … It’s a magic number — there’s one more to go.”
The top of the standings didn’t change. Wiggins leads Sky teammate Christopher Froome by 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:41 behind. Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia is sixth, 9:57 back.
The day’s ride got off to a furious pace with riders looking for momentary glory by pulling away. But the pack held close, never letting the breakaway cyclists get ahead by more than about 3 1/2 minutes.
Shortly after the halfway mark, several riders, including Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Denis Menchov of Russia, crashed after a large dog crossed the road in front of the pack. Gilbert yelled at the dog’s owners on the roadside, but was held back by a BMC team manager.
Cavendish showed his domination at the end.
“And once again he showed, if there was any doubt, that he is the fastest man in the world,” Wiggins said.
Cavendish’s victory gives Britain five stage wins this year from four riders: Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome and David Millar. That’s the same number of wins for riders from France.
“For the British, it’s a really big day,” said French President Francois Hollande, visiting at the finish line in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town in his political fiefdom.
The final big showdown comes Saturday, a 33-mile time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. Riders will leave one-by-one down a ramp in the race against the clock in reverse order of the standings.