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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) won the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday.
Nibali, who now has a lead of more than 7 minutes in the GC standings, launched a daring attack with 9.5km remaining in the stage on the steep slopes of the Hautacam.
After leaving Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) in his wake, Nibali picked off Mikel Nieve (Sky) a kilometer later and then rode by himself at the front of the race the rest of the way up the hors category climb to capture his fourth stage win of the race.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) was second at 1:10 back, while Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) finished third at 1:12.
Overall, Nibali holds a lead of 7:10 over Pinot, with Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) in third at 7:23 back. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who began the day in second at 5:26, struggled on the final climb and is now 7:25 behind Nibali in fourth. Romain Bardet (Ag2r) is fifth at 9:27.
“Today wasn’t for the rankings. I just wanted another stage win,” Nibali said. “The team has worked so hard for me throughout these three weeks. To win a stage in the Pyrénées is very important. It’s for the whole team.”
Nibali was riding with several of the race’s top climbers when Horner attacked with 10km left. Nibali followed and got on his wheel as the pair began to distance itself from the group.
But Nibali did not spend much time glued to the 42-year-old’s wheel. Half a kilometer later, as Nieve rode by himself at the front of the race, Nibali attacked and immediately surged ahead of Horner.
“On the last climb I possibly went too soon but I was in good shape,” said Nibali. “The pace had been fast because I didn’t want to let the breakaway get too far ahead. It was really important for me to win this prestigious stage on the Hautacam. I’m really happy I did it and I dedicate it to my team because they worked so hard for me.”
Nibali quickly made up time, and with 8.4km left he was just 15 seconds behind Nieve. At the 8m to go mark, Nibali caught up to the Spaniard, increased his cadence dramatically, and floated past him up the left side of the road.
With the rest of the GC contenders left scrambling to attack each other, Nibali continued to turn the pedals over as he climbed to the finish line.
“I’m pretty happy about [second overall]. But it’s only 15 seconds so it’s pretty close,” Pinot said. “The [stage 20] time trial is not going to be easy but I will fight as hard as I can to get them. Fifteen seconds is a very small advantage.”
Nibali’s teammate Michele Scarponi, who won the 2011 Giro d’Italia after winner Alberto Contador was stripped of his title because of a positive test for clenbuterol, said Nibali has the Tour title wrapped up.
“Vincenzo is a real champion. He has done an extraordinary Tour,” Scarponi said. “Won the last mountain stage with a huge demonstration of strength. We try to put him in the best place to win, and let’s say mission accomplished.”
Majka, others chase
Majka, who won Wednesday’s stage 17 and who leads the mountains classification, attacked the peloton with around 7.5km remaining in the stage. He quickly passed Nieve, who was now riding backwards after Nibali surged past him. Majka, who eventually finished third, needed to place in the top 6 in order to keep the polka dot jersey.
With 6km to go, meanwhile, Pinot accelerated away from the peloton. The Frenchman, who began the day third overall at 6:00 behind Nibali, was just 34 seconds behind Valverde in the GC.
Peraud, who started the stage fourth at 6:08 back, along with the sixth-placed Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), matched Pinot’s move. With the trio now riding together, Valverde began to struggle and lose time behind them.
“Behind Thibaut [Pinot] I was on the ragged edge and sometimes there was a headwind,” said Peraud. “But I gritted my teeth to stay in their wheels. My aim was to gain time on Valverde. Now it’s all to do in the time trial. I believe [in a podium finish], but I was really running on empty today. I was thinking about the podium and a possible second place and I told myself, ‘you mustn’t let Thibaut go.'”
“It’s not such a dramatic day,” said Valverde. “I had to hold on, to fight, to suffer. I’m very tired. I was all alone but I didn’t finish too far behind. I went at my pace and now there’s the time trial, everything is possible. I was a little bit in the red today, that’s for sure, but so was everyone. You have to do what you can with what you’ve got and if I have good legs, I can retake second place.”
With 4km to go, the Pinot group had Majka in its sights. A kilometer and a half later, the threesome caught up to the Polish rider and swallowed him up.
But the gap to Nibali was too great, and the group of four finished more than a minute behind him.
“It went well today,” van Garderen said after his fifth place finish. “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.”
“The day before yesterday, Nibali said he was doing good, started thinking about the finish to Hautacam,” Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli said. “He wanted to finish the Tour with some panache. You could see in his face he really wanted it.”
Early climb, descent
After summiting a pair of Cat. 3 climbs, the peloton went up and over the hors categorie col du Tourmalet before plummeting to the valley below ahead of the Hautacam.
With a handful of groups on the road at the base of the Tourmalet, including a pack of 20 escapees, Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) decided to make a bid at winning the climb. He broke away with 10km of climbing left, but he was quickly joined by Nieve and Blel Kadri (Ag2r) a kilometer later.
Nieve and Kadri rode past Chavanel shortly after catching up to him, which began their journey at the front of the race that at times seemed like it might stick.
With a three-man group serving as their primary chasers, Nieve and Kadri continued to climb and share the load as they staved off their competitors. Kadri was the first to reach the summit and the pair then began the fast descent to the base of the Hautacam.
The several groups behind them joined forces on the downhill as speeds ramped up. And then the counter-attacks began. Valverde jumped ahead of the Nibali group early in the descent and put in 20 seconds over it, but eventually his effort failed and he was brought back near the bottom.
With 30km remaining and the Hautacam rapidly approaching, Nieve and Kadri held a 1:28 lead over six chasers. By the time they reached the start of the Hautacam climb, the lead was down to 1:00.
A little more than a kilometer into the ascent, Nieve decided it was time to go. He broke away from Kadri and started his solo ride up the mountain.
But eventually Nieve’s legs wore out and his bid to win the stage came to an end when Nibali blew past him with 8km to go.
The Tour resumes with Friday’s 208.5km stage 19 from Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour to Bergerac.