Contador nears Tour title; Cavandish wins stage 

Alberto Contador kept the yellow jersey Friday and closed in on another Tour de France title while Mark Cavendish of Britain again showed he's one of cycling's best sprinters.

Cavendish captured the 18th stage in a final dash, his fourth stage victory in this race and the 14th of his career. The 123-mile ride from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux favored sprinters, and Cavendish made it look easy.

Contador, the defending champion, held his eight-second lead over Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. That gap is expected to widen in Saturday's crucial 32-mile time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.

"It was a rather calm stage today," said Contador. "I needed to be vigilant — the wind was in front — and especially for the last few kilometers, those are the most important."

Schleck, not as strong as the Spaniard in time trials, says he's still got a card to play.

"I feel good. I have nothing to lose," Schleck said. "He's better but I'm not bad, too. We're going to see a battle tomorrow."

Cavendish, in the last several hundred yards, swerved left to get around two riders, including Norwegian sprint star Thor Hushovd. He then moved back right to cross alone.

Cavendish looked over his shoulder at the finish after winning by several bike lengths. Julian Dean of New Zealand was second and Alessandro Petacchi of Italy was third.

"I just wanted to conserve my energy," Cavendish said, when asked why he appeared to let up at the end. He said he wanted to save himself for the time trial.

"I doesn't matter whether you win by a lot or half a bike length," he said, after finishing in 4 hours, 37 minutes, 9 seconds, the same time awarded to the main pack. "I just wanted to win."

Petacchi overtook Hushovd for the green jersey, which is awarded to the best sprinter. Hushovd finished 14th in the stage and gave up any hope of regaining the green jersey by the final stage Sunday on Paris' Champs-Elysees.

"It's a big disappointment, but I realized step by step during the sprints that I'm suffering," Hushovd said. "I don't have the same level as Cavendish and Petacchi, and today was just another sprint that didn't work out."

Cavendish's HTC Columbia team moved to the front of the pack in the last 12 miles, pressing the pace to reel in four breakaway riders who got out after 7 miles and led nearly the whole day.

With less than 2 miles to go, the fast-moving pack swallowed up the last of those escapees, setting up the final bunched sprint.

 

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