Tour de France 2014: Vincenzo Nibali strengthens hold on yellow jersey as Rafal Majka wins stage 17
It was Majka's second stage win on this year's tour
Vincenzo Nibali’s iron grip on the Tour de France’s leadership remained intact on today's second Pyrenean stage but the ferocious battle for the right to stand beside the Italian on the final podium in Paris rages on unresolved.
On Tuesday Nibali’s failure to clamp down on an attack by young French challenger Thibaut Pinot briefly created a window of doubt about whether, after the Sicilian had led the race almost continuously since the second stage, his strength was beginning to ebb.
The answer came today and it was an imperious one, as four kilometres from the summit finish at Pla d’Adet, Nibali stormed away from a crumbling group of half a dozen favourites.
The stage – which went to Pole Rafal Majka, with a second stunning solo victory – was out of the Italian’s reach. But Nibali’s relentlessly fluid climbing style netted the Astana leader third place on the stage, 46 seconds down, and another 50 seconds’ advantage on his closest overall pursuer, Alejandro Valverde.
Barring total disaster on today’s final Pyrenean stage or Saturday’s time trial, he will be Italy’s first winner of the Tour in 16 years. Nibali was cautious when he received a congratulatory text from Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and said he had not won yet, but it is looking more and more probable.
Even as Nibali’s road to Paris is growing ever clearer, two major mountain stages have done next to nothing to resolve the battle for second and third overall. On Tuesday, Pinot’s blistering mountain attacks netted the FDJ.fr climber a provisional place on the podium ahead of his rival Romain Bardet, riding for another French squad, AG2R.
Today, though, another AG2R contender, the veteran Jean-Christophe Péraud, managed to shadow Nibali all the way to the line. As a result, although Péraud remains in fourth overall, he has narrowed the gap on Pinot to just eight seconds.
Valverde, meanwhile, remains Nibali’s closest rival, but the Spanish veteran turned in a wildly uneven performance on the crucial final ascent that makes his second place overall look increasingly vulnerable.
Briefly dropped by Pinot and Bardet, Valverde used a succession of Movistar team-mates to help him overcome his moment of weakness and shepherd their leader up the sun-baked 11km final climb.
The peloton ride their way through the Pyrenees (EPA)
Valverde was able to regain contact with the two younger Frenchmen in the final kilometre and even sprinted ahead of them to gain another five seconds. But an unexpectedly strong ride by the 37-year-old Péraud – an Olympic silver medallist in mountain biking – means there are still four riders fighting for second and third on the podium.
“I had a difficult moment, but I managed to keep things under control,” Valverde said. “My team has helped me save the day really well and I went flat out in the final metres to get some time. A top-three finish is closer than ever.
“I’m still third overall, but my position is hanging by a thread,” Pinot recognised. “I felt a lot worse than I did yesterday, Péraud was very strong, and the last climb was very difficult for me. The podium’s completely undecided.”
Today’s final mountain stage, featuring two massive ascents, the Tourmalet and the Hautacam – “the two hardest climbs in the Pyrenees,” according to Pinot – may establish a definitive hierarchy. If not, then Saturday’s 54km individual time trial on constantly rolling roads between Bergerac and Perigueux, where the versatile Péraud should again have the edge on his rivals, will prove decisive.
Just a few hours after the Tinkoff-Saxo leader Alberto Contador announced that the injuries that caused him to abandon the Tour would also prevent him from racing in the Vuelta, the Spaniard’s team-mates continued to shine on their own account in the Tour.
On Tuesday Australian Michael Rogers clinched a lone victory, and today Majka, already victorious at Risoul in the Alps, claimed a spectacular second summit finish win.
Vincenzo Nibali grip on the yellow jersey shows no signs of weakening (Getty)
Following a fluctuating battle with Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, his latest victory also all but confirms the Pole as the winner of the King of the Mountains classification, too.
Team-mate Nicolas Roche made a huge contribution to Majka’s victory by first helping to reel in early attacker Vasil Kiryienka of Team Sky, and then softened up the breakaway opposition by blasting away in a four-man group.
Majka proceeded to bridge across to his Irish team-mate, before dropping his most tenacious rival, Italy’s Giovanni Visconti, en route to Tinkoff-Saxo’s second straight win. Although his head was bobbing with the effort, Majka still managed to wink at the TV cameras as he came into the final kilometre, and he even remembered to make a “smoking gun” salute – a trademark victory gesture of Contador’s and on this occasion Majka’s way of publicly showing solidarity with his injured leader – as he crossed the line.
Contador forced to miss home tour
Alberto Contador has ruled himself out of the Vuelta a España after suffering a setback in his recovery from the injury that ended his Tour de France.
The Spanish two-time Tour winner broke his shin in a crash last week but had hoped to make his home Grand Tour after avoiding surgery on the injury. However, today Contador wrote on Twitter: “Bad day, the wound healing gets complicated, I’ve no date to take the bike. Goodbye to the Vuelta.”
Chris Froome, one of Contador’s big rivals, has targeted the Vuelta for his own comeback.
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