AUBENAS, France — Mark Cavendish of Britain won the 19th stage of the Tour de France on Friday, and Alberto Contador retained his commanding overall lead with two racing days left.
Cavendish earned his fifth stage victory this year, edging Thor Hushovd of Norway and Gerald Ciolek of Germany in the relatively flat 178-kilometre ride from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas. They all finished in three hours, 50 minutes, 35 seconds.
Lance Armstrong crossed with the same time to retain third place overall, trimming four seconds off his deficit to Contador and second-place Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
While Hushovd is likely to win the green jersey awarded to the Tour’s best sprinter this year, Cavendish became the first racer to win five Tour stages in a single year since Armstrong in 2004.
“This is a high point in my career,” Cavendish said on French TV, acknowledging that a little hill at the finish meant the layout wasn’t suited to his strengths. “It was particularly difficult.”
Overall, Contador leads Schleck by 4:11 and Armstrong by 5:21 heading into the last big stage — Saturday’s 167-kilometre ride from Montelimar to a punishing uphill finish up the famed Mont Ventoux.
“It’s really hard, I’d very much like there not to be a climb,” Contador said of the widely dreaded mountain. “There’s a lot of headwind.”
While his lockhold on the yellow jersey isn’t under much threat, Contador said his first job Saturday will be to defend it — but that he will help Armstrong get a spot on the podium, if he can.
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.”
Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal, the lone Canadian in the race, finished 54th on Friday and is 53rd overall.
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 Andy Schleck’s older brother Frank, a strong climber who is sixth overall — 5:59 behind Contador and 38 seconds slower than Armstrong.
The race ends Sunday in Paris, with what is usually a ceremonial ride on the Champs-Elysees for the rider in the yellow jersey.