Taking his opportunities as they arose, Vincenzo Nibali conquered the Hautacam and took his fourth victory – the last man to win the Tour with four (non-time trial) stage wins was Eddy Merckx. Meanwhile, Alejandro Valverde was distanced by the French, falling from second to fourth place, setting up a tantalising time trial showdown on Saturday.
Who’s the daddy?
Hautacam. You really don’t get much more iconic than that – and Vincenzo Nibali, not content to ride safe, went on the offensive yet again to take this final mountain stage of the 2014 Tour in some style.
It was, however, Mikel Nieve (Sky) who tried to take the race by the scruff of the neck on Tourmalet, attacking off a strong 20-man break with only The Schnozz, Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale), for company. Nieve might have been more expressive than his teammate Vasil Kiryienka in yesterday’s stage, but the scenario was the same. He did an enormous amount of work on the climb and the descent (Kadri, for the most part, was just holding on), only for the GC boys to spring into action on the final climb.
In fact, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) sprang into action on the descent, trying desperately – and ultimately futilely – to put time into the Frenchmen who have been dogging him all week: Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Ag2r’s Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet. It was energy Valverde could have used later on the slopes of Hautacam.
As the final climb started in earnest, Nieve dropped Kadri but his time in front was doomed the minute Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) decided to shoot off the yellow jersey group of favourites with 10km to go. Nibali might have an excellent poker face but I’m betting if he hadn’t had sunglasses on, we would have seen his eyes narrow and turn stony. This was a move Horner had performed on Nibali to win the Vuelta last year, and even though the American trailed him by more than half an hour in the GC, the Italian wasn’t having any of it.
With that, the yellow jersye kicked and was away, passing Nieve and taking a spectacular – and passionate – stage win. If the yellow jersey wasn’t sewn up at the start of the day, Nibali knotted the last threads on Hautacam.
But it was the battle going on behind Nibali that did the most damage. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) was riding to secure the King of the Mountains jersey (which he did), while Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and the French trio of Pinot, Peraud and Bardet were riding to drop Valverde. And they did as the Spaniard cracked after a particularly vicious dig by van Garderen with 6km to go, which also dropped Bardet. Pinot kept up the pressure, doing most of the work on the front, while van Garderen and Peraud were content to sit on. Bardet, meanwhile, hung on the back of the Valverde group until he had the energy to try to bridge to his teammate up ahead in the last kilometre.
Say what you like about Valverde, he didn’t panic even when he looked his most cooked, and he rode his own pace to try to minimise the damage. In the end, Pinot came in nearly 50 seconds ahead, taking second place in the GC and dropping the Spaniard down to fourth, behind Peraud by a sliver of a two-second margin. Will that be enough to hold the two podium places for the French after Saturday’s 54km time trial? Once Tony Martin sets the best time, it’ll be nail-biting stuff as we get to the top ten on Saturday. This Tour just keeps on giving.
VeloVoices rider(s) of the day
Not one rider today, not even two, but seven. Nibali, Pinot, Peraud, Valverde, van Garderen, Majka and Bardet have spent these last two mountain stages giving us some of the most exciting racing we’ve seen in the Tour in a long time. Each rider in his own way took the opportunities he was given and did his best to exploit them. Some were more successful than others but never was it a procession to the finish, never was it a shrug of the shoulders and an “I’ll be happy with what I’ve got”. Even the man in the most secure GC position, Nibali, rode with a hunger and a determination to leave it all out on the road. Anyone who says the GC race was dulled because of the Sicilian’s dominance certainly wasn’t watching the same stages as I was. Vive le Tour!
Stage 18 result
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 4:04:17
2. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +1:10
3. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) +1:12
4. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:15
5. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) s/t
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 80:45:45
2. Thibaut Pinot (FJD) +7:10
3. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +7:23
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +7:25
5. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) +9:27
6. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +11:34
7. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) +13:56
8. Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) +14:15
9. Leopold Konig (Netapp-Endura) +14:37
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Trek) +16:25
Points leader: Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
King of the Mountains leader: Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Best young rider: Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Team classification: Ag2r La Mondiale.