The profile begged for a sprint but at the end of three weeks of racing there are plenty of ambitions yet to be fulfilled.
There were 14 teams without a stage win and all of them worked hard to make amends in the race from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde but ultimately their hopes were destroyed by a magnificent sprint by the Manxman who only blasted into contention in the final kilometre. And it was none other than Bradley Wiggins who started the lead-out, then an early escapee - Edvald Boasson Hagen - who dragged Mark Cavendish up to the last of the breakaways.
And then it happened: a stunning piece of sprinting utterly destroyed the hopes of all others as the world champion blitzed into the lead to give his team a fourth stage win in 2012 and his second for the 99th edition. The escapees could see him take the win, beating Matt Goss and Peter Sagan, and yet Luis Sanchez and Nicolas Roche could do nothing to change the fact that they were beaten men on a day that an escape was just as likely to succeed. Ordinarily the break might have won... but Cav is no ordinary rider. He now has 22 Tour stage wins to his name and, going on what we saw today, he'll get another in Paris as well...
The progress report The 222.5km 18th stage of the 2012 Tour de France, from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde began at 11.22am with 153 riders still in the race. On the menu for this transitional stage were four climbs: the cote de Saint-Georges (cat-3 at 67.5km), the cote de Cahors (cat-4 at 117.5km), the cote de Souillac (cat-4 at 180.5km) and the cote de Lissac-sur-Couze (cat-4 at 212.5km). The intermediate sprint was in Cahors at 115km. Six into the lead... eventually It was a fast start to the 18th stage and it took 21km for an escape group to form. Eventually it was Fofonov (AST) who instigated a move and five others followed: Perez (EUS), Simon (SAU), Pineau (FDJ), Morkov (STB) and Sprick (ARG) at 26km they were ahead by 40” and Omega Pharma-Quickstep led the peloton. The maximun gain was 50” (at 29km) and then the pack chased hard and by 40km the escape was over. The average speed for the first hour was 48.2km/h. At the 49km mark the escape was over. The bunch rode together until 65km when nine men managed to gain some ground. Nuyens led Arashiro over the first climb and, at 71km, a group of 16 formed an escape. The riders represented were: Popovych (RNT), Arashiro (EUC), Millar (GRS), Fouchard (COF), Boasson Hagen (SKY), Hansen (LTB), Vanendert (LTB), Boeckmans (VCD), Paolini (KAT), Roy (FDJ), Costa (MOV), Kroon (STB), Nuyens (STB), Vinokourov (AST), Albasini (OGE) and Gretsch (ARG).
Saur-Sojasun chased briefly but once the advantage of the escapees got to 2'30”, the French team conceded that it had missed the break today and Sky took over the pace setting duties.
Brajkovic (AST) crashed at the 74km mark but remounted and, with the help of three team-mates, rejoined the bunch at 84km. By then the escapees were 3'15” ahead and BMC put three men on the front of the peloton, later joined by rides from AG2R, and at 91km the lead was down to 2'45”. The average speed for the 2nd hour was 44.8km/h. The maximum gain of the escape was 3'30” at 102km. The break came back to 2'10” at 120km. Canine causes crash At the 120km mark, a large dog ran onto the road and caused a crash in the peloton that involved Gilbert (BMC), Menchov (KAT), Farrar (GRS) and Vichot (FDJ). All could ride again despite the accident but the former Belgian champion didn't get on the bike until after he gave the owners of the dog a verbal spray.
BMC, Saur, Euskaltel and Omega Pharma led the peloton's pursuit. The average speed for the third hour was 41.5km/h.
The first attack from the lead group came from Millar with 43km to go. He was caught, Arashiro led over the top of the third climb and then Boasson Hagen put in a brief attack... this flurry of action prompted two to lose contact with the front group (Boeckmans and Fouchard) and with 37km to go, the 14 escapees had an advantage of just 1'35”. The average for the fourth hour was 45.5km/h.
With 28km to go, the advantage of the 14 escapees was down to 45”. Millar was the rider who did the most work at the front of the escape; while the Scot was swapping off with Popovych.
With 20km to go, Hansen attacked. He was first joined by Roy, then at 13km to go Vinokourov, Nuyens and Paolini also joined the lead group. Roy was caught by the peloton 10km from the finish. Cavendish claims win number 22 Roche (ALM), Kloden (RNT) and Sanchez (RAB) attacked the peloton after the final climb and joined the leading trio with 5.5km to go. There were several attack from the peloton by the likes of Oss and Gerrans but ultimately the bunch was led up to the escapees only inside the final kilometre. Roche was the first to sprint but he could do nothing to hold off an impressive charge by Cavendish (SKY) who received a perfect lead-out: first from Wiggins who peeled off after going under the ‘Flamme Rouge' and then from Boasson Hagen.
The yellow jersey could watch from the distance as the world champion flew past everyone with a sprint that started 300m from the line when it seemed that the Manxman had rockets in his legs. Goss and Sagan followed him to the line but they were never in contention for the win.
Wiggins finished 19th in the stage and will wear the yellow jersey in stage 19.
Image courtesy of ASO/Le Tour