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 Sky Procycling 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, one of the world’s top sprinters, has made plenty of sacrifices over the past three weeks, even leading his team leader over the climbs he often dreads.
After 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 today’s time trial.
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, giving him as many as seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. “I have used this technique to win 22 stages. … It’s a magic number.”
Today’s time trial is the last challenge for Wiggins, and it is a discipline he 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,” Wiggins 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.