After almost three weeks of racing, racers would be forgiven for wanting to take an easy day in the saddle. In Tour de France terms, that would mean letting an early breakaway gain a big lead, like fifteen to twenty minutes, and riding a steady tempo behind them, then ramping up the speed in the final few kilometers for a sprint. But that didn't happen on Stage Eighteen, the 222.5km (139mi) trek from Blagnac to Brive-La-Gaillarde.
For some reason, the racers wanted to go fast. It took over an hour of attacking, chasing, regrouping, and repeating for the big break of the day to finally get established. Over that time, the racers held an average speed of 48.8kph (30.5mph). The sixteen-man breakaway was never given more than a 2:30 lead over the peloton, as several teams behind conspired to keep the pace high.
As the race closed in on the finish, the break dangled off the front, with several riders falling back and a few jumping ahead of the field to join the break.
In the final kilometers, Liquigas-Cannondale's Daniel Oss went to the front to bring back the break. His efforts were so strong he rode off the front of the field. For a few moments, it looked like he could cross to the break, but the field was just further inspired to pick up the speed.
It was in fact race leader Bradley Wiggins who ramped the pace up for his Sky teammate, World Champion Mark Cavendish, going into the final kilometer. His work done, he swung off and teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen took Cav' to the finishing straight, with the break only a few seconds ahead and the rest of the sprinters fighting to be on Cav's wheel.
Cav' went with 600 meters to go and immediately got a gap. Peter Sagan, Matt Goss of Orica-Greenedge, and Garmin-Sharp's Tyler Farrar followed. Cav' stormed past the final two breakaway riders and won easily. Goss just managed to hold off Sagan for second, whilst the final two members of the break, Luis Leon Sanchez, and Nicholas Roche, finished fourth and fifth.
The day was fast all around, with the average speed 45.3kph (28.3mph) for the day. Sagan might have been third at the finish line, but he extended his lead in the race for the Green Jersey, and won the best young rider competition of the day. At the finish, Sagan betrayed no disappointment in his assessment of the stage. "Cavendish is a very strong sprinter. It was a good victory for him today." It was a warm-up effort for Sunday, and it gave him a chance to assess his rivals.
Tomorrow's stage is a 53.5km (33.4mi) time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. The expectation is that Wiggins and his teammate, second-placed Chris Froome, will probably extend their lead on everyone else. Liquigas-Cannondale's Vincenzo Nibali, who sits in third, 36 seconds out of second place, and 3:12 ahead of fourth-placed Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, is a pretty good racer against the clock. He'd love to move up to second.
Stage 18 Results—Blagnac to Brive-La-Gaillarde 222.5km
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Sky Procycling 4:54:12
2. Matthew Harley Goss (Aus) Orica GreenEdge same time
3. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas-Cannondale same time
4. Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank same time
5. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale same time
Stage 18 Liquigas-Cannondale
27. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita 0:00:04
42. Dominik Nerz (Ger) same time
80. Ivan Basso (Ita) 0:00:42
87. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) 0:01:31
88. Daniel Oss (Ita) 0:01:52
89. Kristijan Koren (Slo) 0:01:54
136. Federico Canuti (Ita) 0:07:50
144. Alessandro Vanotti (Ita) 0:08:54
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 83:22:18
2. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:02:05
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:02:41
4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team 0:05:53
5. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:08:30
25. Ivan Basso (Ita) 0:54:29
43. Peter Sagan (Svk) 1:33:12
49. Dominik Nerz (Ger) 1:37:58
71. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) 2:08:47
98. Kristijan Koren (Slo) 2:44:54
105. Federico Canuti (Ita) 2:49:09
112. Daniel Oss (Ita) 2:51:37
114. Alessandro Vanotti (Ita) 2:54:05
Points Competition Standings
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas-Cannondale 386pts
2. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol Team 264
3. Matthew Harley Goss (Aus) Orica GreenEdge 238
4. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Sky Procycling 175
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 146