NARBONNE (France) (AFP) - Isle of Man sprinter Mark Cavendish made cycling history on Thursday when he became the first ever Briton to claim three stage wins in a single edition of the Tour de France. Cavendish dominated a bunch sprint at the end of the race's 167.5km 12th stage, finishing ahead of Frenchman Sebastien Chavanel and Belgian Gert Steegmans. "This was the hardest of all three sprints. It was really fast all day," said Cavendish, who overtakes former British great Barry Hoban, twice a two-time stage winner in a single edition of the race. "I'm glad I could do that for my team-mates especially for how hard they've worked in the last few days." Australian Cadel Evans, of Silence-Lotto, retained the race leader's yellow jersey with a 01sec lead over Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck, who rides for CSC. American Christian Vande Velde is still in third place at 38sec, while Austrian Bernhard Kohl remained fourth at 46. Russian Denis Menchov and Spaniard Carlos Sastre at 57 and 1:28 respectively in fifth and sixth. After a day marked by scandal, then an ambitious breakaway that was caught inside the final 10km, there were few changes to the race's general classification, save for the disappearance of Italian climber Riccardo Ricco. The 24-year-old Italian began the day in ninth place overall but finished it in police custody after it was revealed he had tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin). It meant his entire Saunier Duval team left the race under a cloud on Thursday morning minutes before the riders left the start line in Lavelanet. Cavendish, however, brought some smiles back to faces after another textbook sprint was prepared by his impressive Columbia team. The 23-year-old launched his final drive in the final 200 metres and was simply unbeatable, coasting over the finish line holding up three fingers to signal the number of wins on the race. He now becomes Britain's record holder for the number of stage wins in a single edition, surpassing Hoban who has a record eight stage wins, scoring doubles in 1969 and 1973. Cavendish's Columbia team lacked the coherence they showed in stage five and eight, when they put their impressive 'train' to good use to lead out the Manxman before his final drive for the finish line. However Cavendish still managed to display his power, and his agility, to again beat a bunch of top names including Robbie McEwen, Oscar Freire, Steegmans and German veteran Erik Zabel. "It was a difficult finish and there was a lot of wind at the end but that just shows the strength of our team," added Cavendish, who admitted that struggling to get over the Pyrenees mountains had left him depleted."I didn't win with the same margin I did on my previous stage wins, and that shows how tired I am now, but I still managed to win nonetheless. I'm really happy." Evans will go into Friday's 13th stage, a 182km ride from Narbonne to Nimes, unlikely to come under threat from his main yellow jersey rivals.Part two in the battle for the yellow jersey is not likely to begin until Sunday when the 15th stage, over 182km, from Embrun to Prato Nevoso in Italy kicks off three stages in the Alps. Tour chief, riders support snaring of cheats Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme has warned cyclists, their teams and sponsors who pour millions into the sport that the noose is tightening around the drugs cheats. The world's biggest bike race was rocked Thursday by a third positive doping case when it was revealed that Italian star Riccardo Ricco had tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin).Ricco won two climbing stages last week, becoming one of the most followed riders in the Pyrenees where he put many established climbers into trouble with his lightning fast accelerations. On Thursday, the 24-year-old's Tour came to an abrupt end when he was taken into custody by French police amid scenes of chaos outside his Saunier Duval team bus before the start of stage 12. His positive test for EPO was confirmed by the French national anti-doping agency (AFLD). The independent agency warned before the race it would use every possible scientific tool at their disposal in analysing the riders' blood and urine samples in a bid to show they mean business. So far, the strategy has worked. Ricco becomes the third rider inside a week to be pulled out because EPO use, following similar results for Spanish duo Manuel Beltran (Liquigas) and Moises Duenas (Barloworld). Prudhomme said he regretted having to deal with such negative publicity. But he believes that catching the cheats is the only way to clean the sport. "Of course it's not good for the reputation of our race, or the sport of cycling, but we are happy the cheats are being caught," Prudhomme told reporters here following the 12th stage. "I spoke to the managers of all the teams at the start of the race and told them that they held the keys to making this race one to remember, for being drugs-free. "Obviously, not everybody has listened." The 24-year-old Ricco provided a urine sample which also contained the banned substance CERA (Continuous Erythropietin Receptor Activator) after the fourth stage, a 29.5 km time-trial at Cholet. It later emerged that other samples provided by the rider could reveal similar results. His Spanish team initially took to the start line for the 12th stage from Lavelanet to Narbonne, although they made a hasty retreat to their bus shortly before 1200 GMT. Saunier-Duval then announced they had decided to pull out of the race and all other cycling activities until they get to the bottom of the affair. "We've decided to suspend all cycling activities until we find out what has happened," team spokesman Matxin Fernandez said. Prudhomme had said earlier that ultimately, it showed the controls are now working: "We have often had doubts in the past that the controls are actually working. "What has happened so far just goes to show that the noose is tightening around those who still believe they can cheat and get away with it." A runner-up at last month's Giro d'Italia won by Alberto Contador, Ricco is considered the biggest star to emerge in Italian cycling since the late Marco Pantani, a former winner of the Tour and Giro. He fell under the doping spotlight last week when it was reported that he was one of several targets of the AFLD. He is reported to have a naturally high haematocrit level of over 50, meaning the volume of oxygen-rich red blood cells in his blood, that could aid his performance, is higher than the norm. The UCI introduced a 'legal' limit of 50 for cyclists in 1999, after many cyclists and endurance athletes were found to be using EPO in dangerous proportions. Ricco last week brushed off the suspicions, saying: "I know I have nothing to worry about. The International Cycling Union (UCI) know that and I have a certificate from the UCI to prove that they are naturally high." However the news of his positive test has been applauded by many cyclists. "If he's cheated, then throw him out," CSC rider Stuart O'Grady told AFP at the 12th stage start line. "As far as I'm concerned they should be hit with a lifetime ban." Isle of Man sprinter Mark Cavendish, who won the stage to become the first Briton to win three stages in a single edition of the race, was also unforgiving. "Obviously it shows that the tests are working, people are getting caught and the sport is changing for the better," he said. "Cycling's not just a job, it's a passion. Maybe the people who resort to doping don't have the passion that myself and a lot of other people have." Patrice Clerc, the president of the Tour's holding company ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation), also applauded the news. "Obviously, it's yet another tumultuous day for our sport but we welcome the fact that another rider has been caught. We can't clean up the sport without dirtying our hands," said Clerc. "We made it clear before the Tour: we've said we want to fight the cheats, and the AFLD outlined its determination to use all measures at their disposal. "Obviously some people didn't listen."