BORDEAUX, France -- Even without his most important teammate, Mark Cavendish showed yet again that few can touch him when it comes to sprinting.
The British rider captured the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Friday while Alberto Contador of Spain drew closer to victory. The defending champion leads Luxembourg's Andy Schleck by eight seconds entering Saturday's decisive time trial, a day before the three-week race ends in Paris.
Cavendish won a stage for the fourth time in this Tour and the 14th time in just three years of competing in cycling's premier event.
He surged to the front in the final couple of hundred yards. He gave himself such a lead that he was able to look behind him a couple of times and then cross the line with his fist in the air.
Some Hollywood star power was there to greet him. Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, on hand to promote their latest film in France, joined Contador on the podium to receive his yellow jersey. Cruise raised the Spaniard's hand and patted him on the back.
Cavendish won without his usual leadout man and roommate. Mark Renshaw was expelled from the race after the 11th stage for head-butting an opponent, and Cavendish dedicated his latest victory to Renshaw. He says the Australian rider made life easy, bringing him to the front.
"I've missed Mark," Cavendish said. "I missed him in the Pyrenees, I missed somebody suffering more than me. I missed somebody to laugh about, about how hard it is."
Second place went to Julian Dean of New Zealand and third to Alessandro Petacchi of Italy. Petacchi took the green jersey given to the leading sprinter from Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Hushovd acknowledged that his fight to retain the sprint title he won last year was over.
"It's a big disappointment, but I realized step by step during the sprints that I'm suffering," said Hushovd, speaking after ducking into his team bus to take off the green jersey he had been wearing. "I don't have the same level as Cavendish and Petacchi, and today was just another sprint that didn't work out."
Although Contador hold what appears a slender lead, he is expected to easily outpace Schleck in the 32-mile time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac. Last year, he won the time trial held late in the Tour and took 1 minute, 45 seconds off Schleck.
Contador, as the leader, also has the advantage of riding last, allowing him to know how all his rivals have done.
Saturday is the last stage in which the positions at the top can change. Sunday's final stage into Paris is traditionally a sprinters' stage and a daylong victory procession for the overall winner.
Still, Contador insists his victory is not certain until the time trial is over.
"This is a hard stage that comes after 20 days in the Tour, and this isn't a race for specialists. I think tomorrow I will really have to fight a lot to win the stage and to defeat (Schleck)."
Schleck, for his part, has not given up hope.
"I feel good. I have nothing to lose," he said. "He's better but I'm not bad, too. We're going to see a battle tomorrow."
In the race for third place, Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain holds a 21-second lead over Denis Menchov of Russia, the winner of the 2009 Giro d'Italia.
Among those hoping to win Saturday is world time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, Schleck's teammate at Saxo Bank. Cancellara took the race's prologue time trial and held the yellow jersey for six days early in the race.