Cavendish bests field in Tour's 19th stage
British cyclist earns 5th stage win of event as Contador stays overall leader
Alberto Contador is in command with two days of racing left at the Tour de France, while teammate Lance Armstrong remains in third place.
Mark Cavendish of Britain captured Friday's 19th stage in a sprint finish. It is the fifth time he has won a stage in this event, becoming the first to accomplish the feat in a single Tour since Lance Armstrong in 2004.
"This is a high point in my career," Cavendish told French TV.
Cavendish edged Thor Hushovd of Norway and Gerald Ciolek of Germany on the relatively flat, 178-kilometre ride from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas. Hushovd most likely will win the green jersey awarded to the Tour's best sprinter. They all finished in three hours, 50 minutes and 35 seconds.
Armstrong, the seven-time champion, had the same time. He trimmed four seconds off his deficit to Contador and second-place Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
Contador leads Schleck overall by 4:11 and Armstrong by 5:21 entering the last big stage — Saturday's ride from Montelimar to a punishing finish up the famed Mont Ventoux.
The race ends Sunday in Paris, with what is usually a ceremonial ride on the Champs-Elysees for the rider in the yellow jersey.
"It's really hard. I'd very much like there not to be a climb," Contador said, referring to the widely dreaded mountain. "There's a lot of headwind."
While his lock on the yellow jersey isn't under threat, Contador said his first job Saturday will be to defend it. He also wants to help Armstrong get a spot on the podium.
The extra four seconds that Armstrong collected by riding among the 12-man sprinters' group could come in handy because he is closely trailed in the overall standings for third.
"Tomorrow is the big day, but that's what made the ride today hard because already we're a bit into the stage [mentally]," Schleck said. "Tomorrow it's the legs that will do the talking."
Schleck said that in comparison to Mont Ventoux, L'Alpe d'Huez — another of France's most punishing climbs — is "a piece of cake."
Bradley Wiggins of Britain, a three-time Olympic pursuit champion who has fared well in the mountains this year, is fourth, 15 seconds slower than the Texan. Germany's Andreas Kloeden is fifth, 17 seconds behind his Astana teammate Armstrong.
Perhaps the top threat to Armstrong's podium hopes is Schleck's older brother, Frank. He is a strong climber who is sixth overall, 5:59 behind Contador and 38 seconds slower than Armstrong.
With files from The Associated Press