The Tour de France's top three – but not the final order – was all but decided on yesterday's second of three Pyrenean stages as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali formed a working alliance to gain time on their overall rivals.
Should either or both of the two Britons, who are currently first and second in the overall standings, remain in the top three spots after today's final mountain stage, the path is clear, barring a disaster, for the first GB rider in the race's 108-year history to stand on the final podium in Paris.
"It's been a big step forward, all things being equal," Sky sports director Sean Yates said yesterday. "Nibali's proved he's the top guy [rival] and he's not given up hope, but tomorrow is not so hard and his chances will be more limited."
Yates described the Britons' position as "history in the making. And there's no getting away from that. The guys are doing what they've got to do but it's never been seen before."
When Nibali's Liquigas squad upped the pace on the Aspin, the second-last climb, the front pack shrank to around 20, with 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans sliding instantly out the back on what proved to be a nightmare day for him.
The veteran Australian's difficulties intensified radically when Liquigas piled on the pressure again on the Peyresourde, and when Nibali made the first of two attacks, shattering the front group, the gaps yawned even wider.
His head almost touching the bars, and shoulders swaying from side to side as he battled to limit the gap in intense heat, Evans lost nearly five minutes and all hopes of a second Tour win.
Nibali's move brought a response from just two riders – Froome and Wiggins. Spinning a characteristically high gear, Froome paced his team-mate and Tour leader up to the Italian's back wheel, and the three formed a working alliance over the Peyresourde summit that gained them nearly a minute on their closest rivals by the finish.
"I am pleased because I always said my ambition was the podium," Nibali said. He then warned his two Sky rivals that their alliance can only go so far: "Being up there, you always want something more."
The stage win itself went to France's Thomas Voeckler, who shed breakaway companion Bryce Feillu on the Peyresourde to claim his second triumph in three years at Bagnères- de-Luchon and the King of the Mountains jersey.
The Tour, meanwhile, faces its final mountain-top finish today, the 15.4-kilometre climb of , which effectively represents Nibali's last chance to dislodge Froome and Wiggins. Should he fail, then only a last-minute disaster will prevent Britain from converting their first visits to a Tour's final podium into the country's first overall victory.
"It's nothing like as hard," Yates said. "The Port de Bales [the second last climb] is hard, but then you're on the last climb [Peyragudes] before you know it and the opportunity for gaining time is relatively limited.
"The game's still on, and it's not over until we reach Paris, but I think at the moment we're looking good."
Frank Schleck claims he may have been "poisoned" and has requested the analysis of his B sample after testing positive for the banned diuretic Xipamide which resulted in his withdrawal from the Tour on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old, who finished third in the 2011 Tour, said in a statement: "I categorically deny taking any banned substance. I have no explanation for the test result and therefore insist that the B sample be tested.
"If this analysis confirms the initial result, I will argue that I have been the victim of poisoning."