Tour de France: Vincenzo Nibali hungry for wins as French trio eye podium
The Italian enhances his lead to a near-unassailable 7mins 10secs with just three stages to go
The remorseless pressure of France’s overall contenders on second-placed Alejandro Valverde finally bore fruit today as Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud broke away from the Spaniard – and on to the provisional podium – on the mist-enshrouded Hautacam climb.
Vincenzo Nibali, the overall leader, came under no such challenge, blasting off for his fourth stage win of the Tour around nine kilometres (5.5 miles) from the summit and an even stronger hold on the yellow jersey.
Chris Horner, the American veteran who deprived Nibali of victory in the Vuelta last autumn, was the only one able to follow the Sicilian, and then only briefly. After a few hundred metres, Nibali powered off alone, his yellow jersey slightly open and his relentless pace not even faltering a little when the outstretched arm of a fan trying to take a selfie glanced against his elbow.
Accelerating hard past earlier attacker Mikel Nieve to ensure he would not be shadowed on his bid for a final stage win, with four kilometres to go the Astana rider had only the mountain to beat. Then as the mist curled across the summit and the finish approached, Nibali thumped his hand against his team’s name on his jersey and then his right arm shot skywards – almost exactly the same gesture as when he won the last mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia last year, on the snow-enshrouded summit of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and sealed his victory in Italy’s biggest race. This time he has netted an even more important prize.
Remarkably, Nibali has taken four road stages in the Tour: the most, if time trials are excluded, for any overall winner of the race since all time cycling great Eddy Merckx in 1974. Nibali has done it in all three sets of mountains visited by the Tour this year, too: the Vosges, the Alps and now the Pyrenees – not to mention at Sheffield, after a long grind through the Peak District.
And there was certainly an air of “the Cannibal” as the rider nicknamed “the Shark” chewed off another stage win with the most Merckx-esque of logic: because he was the strongest, and because he could.
“It was my way of thanking the team,” Nibali explained. “My squad worked so hard for me during the race, and I want to dedicate it to them.”
The Italian’s initial attack, he admitted, “had been a little early”. But his desire to crush his Vuelta rival Horner proved too much for him to resist. He said: “I had no idea of Nieve’s margin. He has been a strong rider and I didn’t want him getting too much of an advantage.” Given Nieve was over 36 minutes behind him on classification prior to today’s stage, this explanation, is, to say the least, debatable.
Nibali’s need to win, again and again, might just be understandable in another context: for most of the Tour he has been fighting two invisible, unbeatable enemies: Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Both of the top favourites having crashed out and abandoned, the question remains whether Nibali could have won had they remained in the Tour. It will stay impossible to answer.
Vincenzo Nibali is set for the most stage wins barring time trials by a yellow jersey since Eddy Merckx (EPA)
If Nibali rules supreme, the fate of Valverde, the rider who had been lying second before the stage, could not have been more different.
The Spaniard has been under attack since Tuesday’s first Pyrenean stage, when a surge by Pinot on the top of the last climb, the Port de Bales, saw the Movistar rider briefly waver. On Wednesday, it was Péraud’s chance to turn the screw a little tighter, gaining 50 seconds. But Valverde still clung onto second overall, albeit by a handful of seconds.
Halfway up the 13km Hautacam, the final major ascent of the Tour, the two Frenchman joined forces to ease away from the Spaniard, and for Valverde, the combination proved almost fatal.
Unaided by his team – unlike on Wednesday, when a succession of Movistar riders had kept the Spaniard in contact with Pinot – Valverde was left to hammer away up the climb at the head of a group of four or five rivals. He crossed the line 49 seconds behind Pinot, in fourth overall behind the two Frenchmen, and with an overall margin of 15 seconds now separating the three riders closest behind Nibali.
The peloton sets off through the streets of Pau at the start of yesterday’s 18th stage (EPA)
“It was very tough, but I kept the gap at 30 or 40 seconds for most of the climb but then it got very windy,” Valverde said. “My body was right on the limit.”
While it is now certain that at least one French rider will finish on the podium in the Tour for the first time in 17 years, Valverde is adamant he can still stop it from being two – by overhauling the French again in the final time trial in Bergerac tomorrow.
“It’s all to play for,” Valverde – Spain’s national time-trial champion – insisted. “Before I was ahead, now it’s them. But that can change on Saturday.”
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