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(AP) - Mark Cavendish won the 18th stage of the Tour de France in a sprint as countryman and race leader Bradley Wiggins moved ever closer to becoming the first British champion.

The ride along four small hills took the pack 222.5 kilometers from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde, seen as a transitional stage before Saturday's time trial.

Wiggins, Cavendish and the Sky team made it look easy with an almost textbook sprint setup. With about 1.3 kilometers left, Wiggins - rare for a yellow jersey-holder - took the head of the pack and chased down six breakaway riders, then peeled away with about a kilometer to go.

The Sky train motored ahead and Cavendish, showing he's perhaps the world's most explosive rider, whirred around the remaining escapees in the last few hundred meters to win by a couple of bike lengths.

Luis Leon Sanchez, seeing Cavendish speed by, appeared to sigh with resignation at the Briton's velocity. By the end, Cavendish beat Matt Goss of Australia in second and Peter Sagan of Slovakia in third.

Cavendish, who has been largely overshadowed on Sky by Wiggins, collected his second stage win of this Tour and his 22nd career Tour stage victory - the same number as seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.

"I just used the slipstreams," said Cavendish. "I have used this technique to win 22 stages … it's a magic number - there's one more to go."
Wiggins and Cavendish exchanged a long hug after the finish.

"It was dangerous in the final. This morning we decided to put the train in place and help Mark in the final," Wiggins said. "It's my gift to him."
The top standings didn't change. Overall, Wiggins has a 2-minute, 5-second lead over Sky teammate Christopher Froome, in second. Italy's Vincenzo Nibali was third, 2:41 behind. Defending champ Cadel Evans of Australia was sixth, 9:57 back.

Cavendish's victory gives Britain five stage wins this year from four different riders, beside Cavendish, Froome, and David Millar. That's the same number of wins for riders from France.

"For the British, it's a really big day," said French President Francois Hollande, visiting at the finish line in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town in his political fiefdom.

The final big showdown comes on Saturday in the 53.5-kilometer (33-mile) time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. Riders will leave one-by-one down a ramp in the race against the clock, in reverse order of the standings.

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Stage 18 Results
1 Mark Cavendish - Sky Procycling - 4:54:12
2 Matthew Harley Goss - Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team
3 Peter Sagan - Liquigas-Cannondale
4 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil - Rabobank Cycling Team
5 Nicolas Roche - AG2R La Mondiale
6 Tyler Farrar - Garmin - Sharp
7 Borut Bozic - Astana Pro Team
8 Sébastien Hinault - AG2R La Mondiale
9 Daryl Impey - Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team
10 Samuel Dumoulin - Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne

General classification after Stage 18
1. Bradley Wiggins - Sky Procycling - 83:22:18
2. Christopher Froome - Sky Procycling - 0:02:05
3. Vincenzo Nibali - Liquigas-Cannondale - 0:02:41
4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck - Lotto Belisol Team - 0:05:53
5. Tejay Van Garderen - BMC Racing Team - 0:08:30
6. Cadel Evans - BMC Racing Team - 0:09:57
7. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre - RadioShack-Nissan - 0:10:11
8. Pierre Rolland - Team Europcar - 0:10:17
9. Janez Brajkovic - Astana Pro Team - 0:11:00
10. Thibaut Pinot - FDJ-Big Mat - 0:11:46

Full results here..

Jersey Standings:
Bradley Wiggins
Peter Sagan
Thomas Voeckler
Tejay van Garderen

Photos by CorVos

Tomorrow's Stage 19 Route -

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