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Britain's Mark Cavendish shows Olympic rivals he's at top of his form with sprint win in Tou
BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, France (AP) Britain's Mark Cavendish has given warning: he will not be denied Olympic gold.
With just seven days to go until the Olympic road race, the "Manx Missile" showed why he is second to none in a bunch sprint, winning the 18th stage of the Tour de France with a stunning burst of speed in the last 600 meters.
The rider from the Isle of Man has sacrificed personal glory during this year's Tour, accepting a smaller haul of stage wins to help teammate Bradley Wiggins become the first Briton to win cycling's premier event.
Worryingly for Cavendish's rivals, this has only increased his appetite for Olympic gold.
"I didn't get to sprint as much, it can make you hungry for sprints when you're used to winning five stages here every year," Cavendish said after bagging his second victory of the Tour in a leg that covered 138 hilly miles from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde in southwest France.
The win cemented the 27-year-old world champion's place as the bookmakers' favorite to capture the first British Olympic gold medal in the road race set for July 28.
The win in Friday's stage gave Cavendish confidence heading into the Olympics, which have been the sprinter's main focus all season.
"It's really important, especially in the fashion I did it," Cavendish said. "It was lumpy, with around 2,000 meters of climbing," he said, which is a lot for pure sprinters, but something he has trained for this year, dropping 9 pounds to prepare for the Olympic course's Box Hill climb.
"There were times I was suffering. It can really give me confidence I've come out of this Tour de France in good condition," Cavendish said.
Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford praised his star sprinter. "He just demonstrated once again why he is such an amazing rider and a genuine world champion," Brailsford said. "It's a good sign for Paris and London."
Cavendish's 22nd Tour de France victory came against some of the same sprinters he'll face in London, including second-place finisher Matt Goss of Australia and young Slovak sensation Peter Sagan, who finished third.
Another rider whom Cavendish aims to beat next week is Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen one of his teammates on Team Sky.
Cavendish was full of praise for the 25-year-old Norwegian, calling him "one of the favorites" for Olympic gold.
"He's fast enough if it's a small group he'll be able to contend there," Cavendish said.
One advantage Cavendish has over the Norwegian is that unlike Boasson Hagan, Cavendish rides on the same professional team with two of the other members of Britain's road racing team, Wiggins and Chris Froome.
"We'll have to see how well the Norwegian team jell together, they're all guys from different teams," Cavendish said.
Another of Cavendish's Olympic teammates, David Millar, said that Cavendish's win Friday was "important" for their motivation heading into the games.
"We're on different pro teams, but we're in the same Olympic team, so it's important for us," said Millar, who is racing the Tour for U.S. team Garmin Sharp.
The top of the standings didn't change. Wiggins leads Froome by 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:41 behind. Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia is sixth, 9:57 back.
The day's ride got off to a furious pace with riders looking for glory by pulling away. But the pack held close, never letting the breakaway get ahead by more than about 3 minutes.
In the finish, Wiggins, Cavendish and the Sky team made it look easy with an almost textbook sprint setup. With less than a mile to go, Wiggins took the head of the pack and chased down six breakaway riders, then peeled away.
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 yards to win by a couple of bike lengths.
The final big showdown comes Saturday, a 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.
The race's top 10 has essentially been frozen for the entire second half of the Tour. The time gaps are such that little is likely to be changed after Saturday's time trial. However, one shift could be a higher placing for young U.S. rider Tejay van Garderen.
The Montana native, who finished a strong fourth place in the race's first time trial, needs to make up 2:38 to overtake Jurgen Van Den Broeck in the overall standings.
Van Garderen beat Van Den Broeck by 2:03 in the shorter time trial earlier in the race, meaning a strong ride could lift the American into fourth place on the Champs-Elysees.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Samuel Petrequin contributed to this article.