Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali grabbed his fourth stage win at this year’s Tour de France on Thursday. He now has a 7-plus-minute lead over second place. Photo by Graham Watson
Chris Froome and Alberto Contador left the Tour de France long ago, but it appears Vincenzo Nibali is still competing against the two pre-race favorites. On a day when Nibali could have just followed wheels, he chose instead to attack midway up the steep slopes of the stage 18 Hautacam finishing climb on Thursday. Perhaps Nibali was trying to prove that even if the two former Tour winners had been around, he would still have taken yellow into Paris.
Whatever the case, to absolutely no one’s surprise, no one could match the Italian’s torrid pace. Nibali (Astana) caught the remnants of the day’s early breakaway, then twisted the throttle all the way to the finish, crossing the line in 4:04:17, a full 70 seconds ahead of second place finisher Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr). That upped Nibali’s GC advantage to 7:10 ahead of new second place occupant Pinot, who managed to gap former second place rider Alejandro Valverde on the 13.6km climb that averaged 7.8%.
With just two sprint stages and a time trial left in this year’s race, all the jerseys look set: Nibali in yellow; Cannondale’s Peter Sagan in the green points jersey; Pinot in the white best young rider’s jersey (he’s 2:17 ahead of second placed Ag2R-La Mondiale rider Romain Bardet); and Stage 17 winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) in the polka dot climber’s jersey. Majka finished third Thursday, just two seconds back of Pinot.
“I wanted to win the stage for the team that worked so hard for me,” said Nibali, who lived up to his “Shark of Messina” nickname, and is set to become the first yellow jersey winner since Eddy Merckx in 1974 to win four road stages.
While Nibali was making history, the battle for the second and third steps on this final podium continued to entertain. Valverde was first to go, attacking with teammates on the descent of the Tourmalet, the first of two monster mountains that featured in the 145.5km stage that marked the Tour’s final uphill challenge.
But after gaining a minimal advantage on the decsent, the Spaniard was quickly reeled back in the valley connecting the two climbs. Soon after Valverde was put under pressure by the stiff pace being set by Nibali’s Astana team, and then attacks from his French podium rivals, Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
Soon Valverde came unhitched, watching his grip on second place slipping away on the steep slopes of the Hautacam. By the finish, Valverde had lost 49 seconds to Pinot, and 47 to Péraud. That was enough to scramble the GC once again, with Pinot now second, Péraud third at 7:23, and then Valverde at 7:25. But with just 15 seconds separating the trio, and a 54km time trial on Saturday, there’s still plenty left to race for.
Meanwhile, American Tejay van Garderen (BMC) had another solid day, finishing alongside Péraud in 5th place, and maintaining his 6th place overall spot, 11:34 behind Nibali.
“It went well today,” said van Garderen after the stage. “I just had it in my mind that this is the last mountain before the end of the Tour, so if you’re going to do something you have to do it today. When I was setting a hard tempo, I would look back and Pinot always looked pretty easy on my wheel. He has shown many times this Tour that he is more explosive than me. So I couldn’t really get a gap and couldn’t really grind him off my wheel with a tempo because he is so strong.”
Van Garderen is arguably the best time trialist among the top 6, but bringing back more than four minutes on Pinot or Péraud is too much to ask for, meaning his run at a final podium position is all but done. However, van Garderen could very well make up the 2:07 gap to fifth placed Bardet, and replicate his top 5 effort from 2012, when he also won the best young rider’s white jersey.
Next up at the Tour de France is the stage 19 run from Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour to Bergerac. The 208.5 km ride is nearly dead flat, making it one for the sprinter’s. Can Sagan finally get a stage win or will he be denied once again?
STAGE 18 RESULTS
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 18
Yellow Jersey: Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Astana Pro Team
Green Jersey: Peter Sagan (SVK), Cannondale
Polka Dot Jersey: Rafal Majka (POL), Tinkoff-Saxo
White Jersey: Thibaut Pinot (FRA), FDJ.fr