Wiggins nears Tour title as Cavendish wins stage

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By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press

BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, France (AP) — For Bradley Wiggins, it's time to bestow gifts at the Tour de France.

With his title in sight, Wiggins made it a point Friday to acknowledge the work of unsung teammate Mark Cavendish, helping to lead him to a stage victory.

Wiggins, Cavendish and their British Sky team did more than underline their authority in Stage 18 at cycling's signature race. They also put their Olympic rivals on notice: Britain may well be a force in the road race at the London Games.

Wiggins is intent on becoming Britain's first Tour winner, and that is Sky's priority. Cavendish has made plenty of sacrifices, even leading his team leader over the climbs he often dreads.

Once Wiggins got through Thursday's mountain finale with his grasp on the yellow jersey secure, he could cede some limelight to a dutiful Cavendish as the race began heading toward Paris for Sunday's finish.

Friday's ride along four small hills over 138 miles from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde was a transitional stage before the time trial Saturday.

Wiggins, Cavendish and the team made it look easy. With less than a mile left, Wiggins — in a rare move for someone in the yellow jersey — 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 finished ahead of Matt Goss of Australia, with Peter Sagan of Slovakia third.

"I just used the slipstreams," Cavendish said after his second stage victory on this Tour and the 22nd of his career. "I have used this technique to win 22 stages. ... It's a magic number. There's one more to go."

The time trial is the last challenge, and a discipline Wiggins dominates. So he could afford to help Cavendish, provided it didn't hurt his overall standing.

"This morning, we decided to put the train in place and help Mark in the final," Wiggins said after hugging Cavendish at the finish. "It's my gift to him."

"He's been an incredible teammate the last couple of weeks. It's nice to be able to pay him back," he said. For Cavendish, "it's been hard every morning, thinking about the (overall standings) and maybe sacrificing some sprint stages."

Wiggins' show of deference bared his mastery and understanding of the sport. Winning the Tour isn't just about scaling ascents, powering in time trials and avoiding crashes. It's also about stroking egos and keeping crucial teammates happy.

"Once again he showed, if there was any doubt, that he is the fastest man in the world," Wiggins said, referring to Cavendish.

Cavendish is unused to sharing attention. Some call him the best sprinter ever. With his victory Friday, he and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong now have the same number of Tour stage wins.

And he might not be through. Many predict he'll win Sunday's stage on the Champs-Elysees and earn a claim to his own champagne, not just Wiggins'.

Cavendish senses a good omen for the Olympics.

"It's really important, especially in the fashion I did it. ... It can really give me confidence. I've come out of this Tour de France in good condition."

Wiggins has switched to road cycling after a successful Olympic track career, in which he won three golds. He'll be one of the favorites to win his fourth in the London time trial; Cavendish is the man on the road race.

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.

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.

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.

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Greg Keller and Samuel Petrequin in Brive-la-Gaillarde contributed to this report.

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