World champion Mark Cavendish compared his Tour de France to Wayne Rooney playing in defence after begging to be unleashed before delivering a 22nd stunning stage win of his remarkable career.
Cavendish has had little opportunity in his sixth Tour, with Bradley Wiggins Team Sky’s priority and closing in on a first British yellow jersey triumph in Paris tomorrow.
Following the 222.5km 18th stage from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, Wiggins retained a commanding lead of two minutes five seconds over Team Sky colleague Chris Froome, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) third, 2mins 41secs behind.
It was Wiggins who intervened when Team Sky sports director Sean Yates determined at the daily morning meeting the squad should let a break contest the stage victory, and five hours later the Tour leader was instrumental in helping Cavendish to victory.
But the 27-year-old Manxman’s win – a success which brought him level with Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of Tour stage winners – owed in no small part to his individual brilliance as he weaved his way to the line.
“It would’ve been easy for my guys to cruise in to Paris now after the mountains,” said Cavendish.
“Sean Yates said this morning ‘just take it easy today. If a break goes, good’.
“I was like ‘Can I have a sprint, please? Just let me have a sprint’.
“Then Brad piped up and said ‘yes, we’ll work for a sprint’.
“It’s been great to be part of the team, what they’re doing this year, but it obviously puts me in a difficult situation.
“I’m part of the team, but I’m not doing what I can do as an individual rider.
“It’s like Wayne Rooney playing in defence. You can still win a match, but you can’t do your part of that to the best of your ability.
“Today, we set it up and we scored the goal.”
Wiggins is expected to solidify his hold on the maillot jaune in today’s 53.5km time-trial to Chartres and Cavendish is set be given a further opportunity on the Champs-Elysees, where he has won in each of the last three years.
Cavendish is accustomed to victory – he won 20 stages in the four previous Tours – and not being at the service of another rider, collecting drinks bottles from the team car as a domestique.
“It hasn’t been the easiest thing, obviously,” added Cavendish, who won stage two.
“It can make you hungry for sprints especially when you’re used to winning five stages here every year.”
Cavendish insisted he was “incredibly proud” and honoured to be part of the team set to deliver the first British Tour winner, but gave short shrift to a question on his own future, despite rumours of discontent.
“I’m currently under contract for three years with Team Sky,” he said.
There is no transfer system in cycling and to move, Cavendish would have to be bought out of the remaining two years of his deal, believed to be in the region of two million euros per year.
A third win tomorrow could ease any lingering personal disappointment, plus there is the prospect of the Olympic road race a week today. His second win was the fifth British stage success of the 99th Tour.
Cavendish was able to recall perfectly the stunning finale as Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen put him in position.
He then had to use all his skill in the final 500m to negotiate his way around Luis-Leon Sanchez and Nicolas Roche, who were making a last-ditch bid to avoid a sprint finish, by veering from left to right before powering to a stunning triumph.
Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) was a distant second, with points classification leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) third.
Wiggins was 19th and was seen punching the air in delight as Cavendish crossed the line, arms aloft.
Wiggins said: “He’s been an incredible team-mate the last couple of weeks. It’s nice to be able to pay him back. It’s been hard every morning, thinking about the GC (general classification) and maybe sacrificing some sprint stages.
“The whole team showed their commitment at the end and it’s great. Nine times out of 10 Cav finishes it off when you do something like that. And once again he showed, if there was any doubt, that he is the fastest man in the world.”
The performance was a tantalising glimpse of what could unfold on the opening day of London 2012 in the 250km road race, when Wiggins will be riding in support of Cavendish.
The route of the penultimate road stage featured four classified climbs and in some ways mimicked the Surrey circuit, which includes nine laps and ascents of Box Hill. Slovakia’s Sagan, Germany’s Andre Greipel – triple stage winners at the Tour – and Boasson Hagen of Norway will be among his rivals for Olympic gold.
“There were times I was suffering, but I was able to recover very quickly and get over the final climb and sprint with the acceleration I had,” said Cavendish.
“It can really give me confidence that I’ve come out of this Tour de France in good enough condition.”