Since his exploits on the cobbled stage to Arenberg 16 days ago, Vincenzo Nibali has increasingly looked to be involved in his own race at the top of the standings, and here that was literally the case, with the Italian finishing alone for his fourth stage win of the race, confirming what looks set to be an emphatic Tour de France victory as the rest of the field scrapped for what was left.
Behind Nibali, the battle for the podium took yet another turn as the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde cracked and dropped to fourth overall, losing 50 seconds on the Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, who moves into second overall, with Jean-Christophe Péraud also overtaking Valverde to move into third.
Only 17 seconds separate the three, and the battle in Saturday’s time trial will be intense.
The difference between the Italian and the rest of the field was underlined when he drifted almost idly out of the main group with 10.2km remaining of the 14km ascent to the finish, responding to an attack from the American Chris Horner.
Nibali has unfinished business with Horner, as he has repeatedly expressed frustration that he did not take him seriously enough in last year’s Tour of Spain, which the American went on to win.
This time round, Horner merely served as a pacemaker for a few hundred metres before Nibali forged on ahead.
It took him 2km of climbing to close the 50-second gap that separated him from the leader on the road, Team Sky’s Spanish climber Mikel Nieve, an early attacker as the British team tried yet again to salvage something from their Tour.
Nibali went past at what seemed like twice the speed. His attack prompted two reactions among those closest to him in the standings. Initially there was no reaction, because Nibali had no further part to play in the battle that interested Péraud, Valverde, Tejay van Garderen and Pinot: their own personal contest for a podium place.
The first to respond was the mountains classification leader Rafal Majka of Poland, who had done a little maths – or had it done for him by a team manager in a following car – and was aware Nibali lay second in the standings, 31 points behind.
The Italian would land 50 for winning the stage – the points are doubled for a mountain-top finish – hence Majka needed to score at least 20 by finishing no lower than sixth to remain in the lead.
Not long Majka had set off in pursuit – not of Nibali but of his jersey – than the podium battle started with Pinot attacking just over 5km from the line, and Valverde cracking, which had looked likely given his intense struggle to stay in contact the previous day at Saint-Lary-Soulan. Pinot, Péraud and Van Garderen moved clear, overhauling Majka. The Pole snatched third at the line to confirm he will wear the polka dots to Paris, although he would admit he is not the best climber: there is only one candidate for that honour and he was the winner here.
Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins has admitted he has struggled with his rise to household-name status, and said there are times he wishes he had never won Olympic gold or the Tour de France in 2012.
Wiggins, in Glasgow to compete in the team pursuit alongside Ed Clancy, Steven Burke and Andy Tennant for his first Commonwealth Games gold medal, said: “It was nice people saying ‘it changed my life’ and hearing things like “the Wiggo effect”; that was a positive.
“From a personal point of view, there’s been times I wish I’d never done all that. I left for the Tour de France that year relatively unknown in the public’s eyes. When I came back, for a week or so I felt like the most famous man in the country.
“It’s quite hard that level of fame, when you just want to do normal stuff with the children, things like that. That was hard, but I think you learn to deal with it.” – Guardian Service