With the Tour de France out of the mountains for good this year, the focus returned to the sprinters today, and HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish left no doubt about who is the fastest finisher in the race. It was Cavendish first, air second in Stage 18, as the British speedster completely dropped the field with about 200 meters to go to win his fourth stage of this year’s Tour.
There was no change to the overall standings, as nearly the entire field finished in the same time as Cavendish. Alberto Contador remains in yellow ahead of tomorrow’s time trial, which will be the last opportunity for any movement in the overall. Though Contador leads Andy Schleck by just eight seconds in the general classification, the Spaniard is easily the better time-trialist of the two and should finish comfortably ahead of his rival to secure his third Tour de France victory. (Full standings.)
It was clear after today’s finish that Cavendish would have a substantial lead in the competition for the green points jersey if not for some bad luck in the Tour’s hectic opening days. He missed out on two sprint finishes in the first week after getting caught up behind crashes near the finish and coming away from those days with zero points. He’s been on a tear since then, however, winning four stages and taking second in another as he won the bunch sprint a few seconds behind a rider who won with a solo breakaway.
Cavendish is now third in the points standings, just 16 points behind Alessandro Petacchi, who moved back into the green jersey with a third-place finish today. Thor Hushovd lost the jersey after managing only 14th place. The Norwegian has struggled in the bunch sprints this year and was in green by virtue of his high finishes in the crash-marred first week and his tactical savvy in collecting points at intermediate sprints along the course each day.
Cavendish isn’t entirely out of the green-jersey hunt. He’s a safe bet to win the Tour’s only remaining sprint stage—the final procession into Paris on Sunday. Depending on how things go in the intermediate sprints on Sunday, a win for Cav in Paris, combined with third place or worse for Hushovd (likely) and seventh place or worse for Petacchi (unlikely but not impossible), could put him in green.
Regardless of the outcome, this Tour has marked Cavendish’s return to the top of the sprint world. Illness and complications following dental surgery over the winter derailed his offseason training, and he went through the spring and early summer with nothing close to the form he exhibited last year. But since his emotional first win in this year’s Tour, he seems to have regained the confidence he needs to attack the finishes and resume his assault on the Tour record books. His win today was the 14th of his Tour de France career, the most ever for a sprinter.