Vincenzo Nibali underlined his 2014 Tour de France dominance with a truly epic solo win during Thursday's Stage 18, the final mountain stage of this year's race.
The Italian rider left the pack in his wake with nearly 10 kilometres left to go on the slopes of Hautacam and comfortably held on throughout the climb, winning his fourth stage of the 2014 Tour. The man in yellow has dominated this year's event from start to finish, and Thursday was no different.
|4||Jean Christophe Peraud||AG2R||+1:14|
|5||Tejay van Garderen||BMC Racing||+1:14|
An early break was always going to have a chance in the final stage of the Pyrenees, and within the first 10 kilometres, 20 riders were able to separate themselves from the peloton.
As shared by Le Tour de France, their lead quickly grew:
Seeing Blel Kadri at the front of the race was hardly surprising, with the young Frenchman being arguably the most aggressive rider throughout the 2014 Tour de France.
Astana kept the pace remarkably high in the peloton, as Nibali's men had no intention of giving the leading group an insurmountable lead. At the foot of the legendary Tourmalet, the peloton chased by just 3:30:
One of the heaviest and most storied climbs in the history of the Tour, the Tourmalet was always going to produce fireworks. Event organisers were fearful rain would plague the climb on Thursday, making the descent that much more dangerous.
That wasn't the case, however, giving even more of an advantage to Nibali, one of the best of the pack at descending.
Sylvain Chavanel tried to go solo from the leading group on the slopes of the Tourmalet, but he was quickly overtaken by Kadri and Mikel Nieve, who held their lead all the way to the top.
Jon Izaguirre and Jesus Herrada allowed themselves to drop from the leading group, and in the descent, it became clear why: Movistar had planned on attacking Nibali's position all along, as Alejandro Valverde suddenly made his jump in the descent:
It was truly a cunning and daring plan, but Nibali wouldn't be fooled. The Italian remained calm and didn't start taking unnecessary risks, as Valverde would have hoped. Within six kilometres, the trio was caught as the peloton headed for the final real climb of the 2014 Tour.
Nieve and Kadri had a two-minute buffer at the base of Hautacam, and as expected, the Spaniard pushed forward on a solo mission, via the Inner Ring:
Watching Nieve & Kadri is like the scorpion & frog. Nieve slowing so Kadri can help with descent/valley road but he'll ride away on Hautacam— the Inner Ring (@inrng) July 24, 2014
Nieve's lead seemed to be too small, however, with the riders for the general classification looking to improve on their position on the last climb of this year's Tour. Christopher Horner was the first to launch an attack, but Nibali answered immediately, indicating he planned on winning yet another stage (and there's still some rivalry following last year's Vuelta).
And with over nine kilometres still to go, the Italian stunned everyone, breaking away from Horner on his own. C-Cycling's Mikkel Conde thought Nibali was making a big statement:
As said. Vincenzo Nibali wants this one badly. For the future, there shall be no doubts about who the strongest rider in this race was. #TDF— Mikkel Condé v2.0 (@mrconde) July 24, 2014
Within a kilometre he had caught Nieve, and he didn't even stop to look, going right over the Spaniard and pushing for the top. Rafal Majka made his challenge from the background, and the Polish youngster was the only rider who seemed to have any chance of keeping up.
The peloton now looked truly spent, a fitting image on the final climb of the Tour. Nibali didn't let up, however, perhaps looking for a double-digit lead in the general classification to completely erase any doubts regarding his performance in this edition.
With five kilometres to go the battle for second place exploded, as Tejay van Garderen made his jump. Valverde broke completely, losing ground fast on Van Garderen, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet.
Hautacam turned into exactly the type of epic climb all fans wanted to see, with Valverde battling the trio for his spot on the leaderboard and Majka fighting for his polka-dot jersey. But like the 2014 Tour, Stage 18 was always a battle for second, as Nibali crossed the finish line solo.
Thursday's win was really a statement by Nibali, who told Cycling Weekly's Gregor Brown he was frustrated with people saying a win in this year's Tour would mean less due to the absence of top challengers:
Why would it mean less? I won almost all the races where I stared last year, where Alberto Contador and Chris Froome were also racing. The only one I didn't race was the Tour. The season went perfectly last year with first in the Giro d'Italia and second in the Vuelta a Espana, I don't consider myself a step behind those riders. OK, maybe the others went strongly in the early part of the season, like in the Dauphine, but they are going slower now.
After Thursday's dominant win, those questions should all but disappear now, as shared by Irish Peloton's Cillian Kelly:
Vincenzo Nibali will be the first Tour winner to win four road stages since Eddy Merckx in 1974 (barring accident).— Cillian Kelly (@irishpeloton) July 24, 2014
Thibaut Pinot won the sprint for second, while Majka did what he had to do to protect the polka-dot jersey by finishing third.
|3||Jean Christophe Peraud||Ag2R||+7:23|
|6||Tejay van Garderen||BMC Racing||+11:34|
|8||Laurens ten Dam||Belkin||+14:15|
|7||Greg van Avermaet||BMC Racing||147|
|4||Alessandro De Marchi||Cannondale||78|
|6||Jean Christophe Peraud||AG2R||57|
Friday's stage will see the peloton leave the mountains, and on the surface, the long, flat stage should favour the sprinters.
But following three days of non-stop climbing and the all-important time trial on Saturday likely deciding the final positions in the top 10, there's no reason why an early break wouldn't stand a chance. The sprinters are exhausted, and none of the top riders will feel like chasing a group and risk losing energy ahead of Saturday.
At this stage of the Tour de France, all logic goes out the window, and two late hills in the final 20 kilometres could open the door for one of the attacking riders to steal a stage win.