BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, France: 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 might 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 today.
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’.
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 behind.
The final big showdown comes today, 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.