Mark Cavendish claimed a sensational win on stage 18 of the Tour de France as his Team Sky colleague Bradley Wiggins edged closer to becoming the first British winner of the yellow jersey.
World champion Cavendish powered through the field in breathtaking fashion before accelerating away in the last 200 metres of the 222.5-kilometre route from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde.
Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) was a distant second, with the green jersey of Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) in third.
It was a 22nd Tour success of Cavendish's career, his second this year, and the 27-year-old from the Isle of Man equals Lance Armstrong and sprinter Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of Tour stage winners.
It was also a fourth victory of the race for Team Sky, more than any other team.
And for Wiggins it was another stage chalked off without alarm - indeed he and Edvald Boasson Hagen both put in huge turns to lead out Cavendish in the closing stages.
Wiggins has a two minutes and five seconds advantage over team-mate Chris Froome at the top of the overall standings, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 2mins 41secs adrift in third.
Just two stages remain, with Saturday's 53.5km time-trial to Chartres the last for time gains to be made.
Taking his chance
"I don’t know how much I won by but I had to go early," said Cavendish after putting bike lengths between himself and the rest.
"I knew I’d be able to go long and no one would be able to pass me, but with 500 or 600 metres to go I started and ramped up. I just knew I’d get it and I felt really good today."
Cavendish has worked selflessly for Wiggins for large parts of the race and he added: "I just haven’t been able to show anything in this Tour with us going for the yellow jersey and there’s been no sprints.
"But we spoke on the bus before the start and I stuck my hand up and said ‘please give me a chance’. Bradley, Froomey and Mick committed straight in and the guys said we were going to make a sprint today. I’m so happy, those lads who I’ve been riding with these last three weeks helped me out."
The world champion had to use all his skill to negotiate his way around Luis-Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and Nicolas Roche (Ag2R La Mondiale), who were making a last-ditch bid to avoid a field sprint.
It had been touch and go as to whether it would come down to a bunch finish after several breakaways - the main one of which had earlier featured the hard-working Boasson Hagen - attempted to stay clear.
Cavendish will have another opportunity in Sunday's final stage on the Champs-Elysees where he is unbeaten, having won in 2009, 2010 and 2011 in the three Tours he has completed.
Wiggins had already vowed to work for Cavendish in the French capital, but began to pay back his friend and team-mate's loyalty with a supreme showing in Brive.
The 32-year-old punched the air in delight behind Cavendish as the Manxman celebrated the latest win of his stellar career.
Wiggins said: "It was the plan today but we thought we might have to work harder for it. Fortunately all the other teams who didn’t have sprinters decided to ride today which was strange. But it worked into our favour and at the end the plan was always to hit the front with Mark at 3.5km to go.
"It couldn’t have gone any better. There was a bit of a group off the front but he proved today who the fastest man in the world is if there was any doubt. You saw how far he went, 600m from the finish, and left them for dead. It was fantastic to be a part of.
"It’s been a great three weeks and I’ve always wanted to be able to do that for him. It’s the first time I’ve led him out for a Tour stage. It’s great."
It all left Team Principal Dave Brailsford understandably delighted as he explained: "We thought it would be a sprint this morning but as the stage developed the break never really established. Lotto-Belisol and GreenEDGE put a man in the break so we put Edvald in there. Then the chase was on and they barely got over three minutes. It was obvious that other teams were determined to bring the break back.
"We were determined to repay Mark for his loyalty, his teamwork and his contribution to this team over the last few weeks. I know Bradley and the guys were very motivated this morning to try and say thanks to him. When you lead Mark Cavendish out like that the result is never in doubt.
"When you look at the Tour he has only sprinted four times. He has crashed once, and then when you look at the three other times he was beaten once and then won the other two - which in anybody’s book is a fantastic return. He’s demonstrated once again why he’s such an amazing rider and a genuine world champion.
"The one thing I’d like the team to be known and remembered for is the unity and that teamwork. The guys work tirelessly for each other, they get on really well and they showed again today that they all back each other, it doesn’t matter what the situation is. Credit to Mark for taking advantage of that today and showing why he is the best sprinter in the world."
Sports Director Sean Yates echoed those sentiments as he offered his own glowing tribute to Cavendish and the team on a day which couldn't have panned out better.
“It just gets better and better," he admitted. "It worked out fantastic today. We set out to have a bunch sprint, but when the break went and Lotto and GreenEDGE had someone in there we knew they wouldn’t chase. Eddy went across on the climb and it turned into a 16 man group.
“A lot of teams knew it was their final chance today. They chased down the break even though they had very little chance of taking the stage with no sprinters. It almost stayed away but when it didn’t we took up the challenge of delivering Cav like the boys talked about in the meeting this morning. It all worked out to perfection and Cav was really happy.
“Brad delivered him perfectly. He had to go early with the breakaway still up there. It worked in his favour as he got a gap and then there was no way of pegging him back once he’d opened up so early. On these long, super-fast sprints he is on another level to everyone else.”
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