Tour 2012: Team Sky Fires The Manx Missile

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Coming off the final big mountain stages and heading into the individual time trial tomorrow, today’s Stage 18 of the Tour de France was not expected to provide much in the way of fireworks. It was an opportunity for the sprinters to take center stage once again and it provided a chance for someone to capture a stage victory, but in the grad scheme of things it would have zero impact on the General Classification.

The 215km (133.58 mile) route ran from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde along a road that featured a few rolling hills but no significant climbs. That allowed for an early break away to escape the peloton but that break couldn’t survive and the main group of riders swept them up just as everyone approached the finish line.

Team Sky used the day to show why they are once again the strongest team in the race by providing a perfect lead out for sprinter, World Champion Mark Cavendish. Cavendish has been relegated to water bottle duty for much of the Tour, providing support for the efforts to get Sky captain Bradley Wiggins to Paris in the Yellow Jersey. But today was the day for his mates to pay him back for his patience and perseverance by setting him up for the stage win on the final stretch run of the day. Even Wiggins helped with the lead out, which propelled Cav to the win just ahead of Matthew Goss and Peter Sagan.

It has been a relatively quiet Tour for Cavendish, who has won numerous stage wins over the past few years. Today’s victory was just his second of the race, although he has been fairly open about saving his strength for the Olympics. Still, todays burst of speed near the finish line was a thing of beauty and served notice to the other riders in the field. He’s the World Champion until further notice and the odds on favorite heading into the London Games. He may not be done in this year’s Tour either, as he’ll certainly be in the mix on Sunday in the wild sprint on the Champs Elysees, a stage that Cav has won on three occasions in the past.

There as absolutely no change in the overall standings in any other way today. Wiggins still holds the Yellow Jersey and his 2:05″ lead over teammate Chris Froome should be unassailable in tomorrow’s time trial. Vincenzo Nibali is in third, 2:41″ back and while he is a great rider, he’ll never catch Wiggins in the ITT, barring some strange mechanical breakdown or crash. That means that Wiggins will triumphantly ride into Paris on Sunday with the Maillot Jaune on his shoulders as the first ever British Tour winner.

Likewise, the Green and Polka Dot Jersey’s are sewn up as well. Peter Sagan is the top sprinter in the 2012 Tour and has looked very impressive in his first outing. French rider Thomas Voeckler is the King of the Mountains, which should make the home crowds very happy when he climbs on to the podium on Sunday. Tejay Van Garderen seems to be a lock for the White Jersey as the Tour’s best young rider. His closest competition is Thibaut Pinot, who sits 3:16″ behind the American. Pinot isn’t likely to close that gap on the time trial either.

As mentioned several times already, tomorrow’s stage is a 52km (32.31 mile) individual time trial from Bonneval to Chartres. That’s a fairly long route for these riders to tackle in solo fashion, particularly at the end of a three week long race. Pacing and bike handling will come into play, but there is zero reason to believe that Wiggins will somehow lose his lead out on the road. The question will be where everyone else behind him ends up in the standings.

Personally, I tend to love the individual time trial on the final stage before Paris. But the drama is gone from this one and Wiggins is clearly the winner. I’ll watch tomorrow just to marvel at the individual performances and ogle the time trial bikes, which are beautiful machines to behold. It is veritable bike porn for fans of the sport.

Sunday’s final stage is 130km (80.77 miles) in length and stretches from Rambouillet to Paris. It is simply a ceremonial victory lap for the race leaders, who enjoy champaign and a relaxing ride along the way. The sprinters will get themselves to the front for the wild scene on the Champs Elysees which simply has to be seen to be believed.

And with that, the 2012 Tour will come to an end and we’ll start counting the days until next year, when we’ll hope to see a revitalized Cadel Evans, a healthy Andy Schleck and focused Alberto Contador return to the field.

Kraig Becker