Cavendish streaked away from his closest sprint rivals
Mark Cavendish stormed to his fourth stage win of this year's Tour de France and his 14th in all on Friday's 18th stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux.
The Manxman outsprinted New Zealander Julian Dean and Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, who edged back in front of Thor Hushovd in the green jersey race.
Cavendish lies third, 16 points behind Petacchi, with one further chance of a win on Sunday's final stage in Paris.
There were no changes at the top with Alberto Contador retaining his lead.
Along with the rest of the overall contenders, conserving energy ahead of Saturday's time trial - the last realistic chance for any of them to gain time over their rivals - was the priority for the day.
A four-man breakaway group escaped at the start of the day but was allowed no more than a three-and-a-half minute lead with the sprinters' teams taking control at the head of the peloton with 30km to go.
Team Sky - with Bradley Wiggins, Juan Antonio Flecha and Geraint Thomas doing their share of work - were to the fore in the hope of launching Edvald Boassen Hagen to a stage win.
But the Norwegian eventually finished back in sixth as Cavendish again showed his class with a victory that was well planned and superbly executed.
The Manxman was propelled on to Hushovd's back wheel by his HTC-Columbia team, who were lacking lead-out man Mark Renshaw, who was thrown out of the Tour last week for headbutting during another bunch sprint.
I had a fever and was sweating all last night and I didn't know if I was going to start today
Cavendish then waited for Petacchi to make his move before streaking away, having time to look back towards his beaten rivals before taking victory by several bike lengths.
"I'm really happy," said Cavendish afterwards. "It was another incredible ride by the guys once again, and after that I couldn't come away with anything less than a win.
"[Team-mate] Bernhard Eisel kept me up there in the frame and even without Mark Renshaw I was able to jump from train to train.
"Sky were well organised again. I think they need a bit more experience but it was good to see a lot of my friends mixing it with the lead-out boys."
Cavendish revealed his latest victory came despite suffering for the last four days with bronchitis, and not knowing whether he would even start the stage.
"I don't feel strong," he added. "I had a fever and was sweating all last night and I didn't know if I was going to start today.
"But you have got to carry on, especially with the team working so hard. I think there's only about 250km to go now and we are ready for a break."
Despite his fatigue, Cavendish - who surpassed Belgian Philippe Thys on the all-time list of stage winners with his 14th - will be favourite to repeat his victory of last year on the Champs Elysees in Sunday's final stage.
Stage 18 results:
1. Mark Cavendish (GB/HTC Columbia) 4h 37m 09s 2. Julian Dean (NZ/Garmin) same time 3. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita/Garmin) same time 4. Robbie McEwen (Aus/Katusha) same time 5. Oscar Freire (Spain/Rabobank) same time 6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor/Katusha) same time
1. Alberto Contador (Spa/Astana) 88hrs 09mins 48secs 2. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg/Saxo Bank) +8" 3. Samuel Sanchez (Spain/Euskaltel) +3'32" 4. Denis Menchov (Rus/Rabobank) +3'53" 5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel/Omega Pharma-Lotto) +5'27""
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