July 24, Stage 18: Pau – Hautacam 145.5km
Tour de France leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) hosted a climbing masterclass on Thursday’s 18th stage between Pau and Hautacam, winning the stage by 1:10 from a chasing quartet led home by Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Wednesday’s stage winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ag2r’s Jean-Christophe Péraud and BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, who crossed the line together in that order.
“I wanted to win the stage for the team that worked so hard for me,” Nibali said after his victory. “It’s important to win in the Pyrenees, I wasn’t really thinking about the GC.”
Nibali has now extended his race lead to 7:10 over Pinot, who deposed former second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who lost time on the final climb up to Hautacam. Péraud has moved up to third place, 7:23 behind Nibali, while Valverde is now down to fourth, 7:25 down.
It was the 2014 Tour’s final stage in the mountains, but Saturday’s long 54-kilometre time trial is certain to shake things up yet further, as the fight for the podium is now closer than ever.
How it unfolded
An early breakaway of 20 included Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar teammates, Kévin Reza and Bryan Coquard, Sky’s Mikel Nieve, Lars Boom (Belkin) and stage 8 winner Blel Kadri of Ag2r.
Along with Europcar, four other teams were represented by multiple riders: Movistar’s Jesus Herrada and Jon Izaguirre, Alessandro De Marchi and Marco Marcato for Cannondale, Tiago Marchado and Bartosz Huzarski for NetApp, and IAM’s Sylvain Chavanel and Marcel Wyss, although Europcar was the only team with three riders. The rest of the group was made up by Katusha’a Yuriy Trofimov, Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Julien Simon (Cofidis), Bretagne’s Florian Guillou, FDJ’s Matthieu Ladagnous and Daniel Oss (BMC)
Only eight teams – Astana, Garmin, Giant, Lampre, Lotto-Belisol, Orica-GreenEdge, Tinkoff and Trek – had missed the move entirely, but an Astana-led peloton seemed content to let the break have some rope; their maximum lead topped out at just over four minutes after an hour of racing before Nibali’s team began to ramp things up, pegging them at around three-and-a-half minutes and settling into cruise control.
The status quo was maintained until the start of the Col du Tourmalet, 80 kilometres into the 145.5-kilometre stage, and the first serious challenge of the day – and a very serious one at that.
On the lower slopes of the Tourmalet, Chavanel accelerated off the front, while Coquard – the sprinter who had won the day’s intermediate sprint – went the other way.
Nieve and Kadri went off in pursuit of the Frenchman, soon catching and passing him. Approaching the resort of La Mongie, five kilometres from the top of the Tourmalet, it was Nieve who pushed the pace, with Kadri working hard to stay on his wheel as the summit approached.
Despite looking as though he was struggling, it was Kadri who led Nieve over the summit of the Tourmalet, while 1:40 behind them, Trofimov, De Marchi and Huzarski had slipped away from the rest of the group in pursuit.
The yellow-jersey group, which included Nibali, Valverde, Pinot, van Garderen, Péraud and Péraud’s Ag2r teammate Romian Bardet, crested the Tourmalet four minutes down on the two leaders, and Valverde immediately went on the attack, while his two teammates from the earlier move – Herrada and Izaguirre – waited for their team leader in order to be able to help him. The Movistar trio soon swept up Voeckler and Wyss from the earlier break, and although the quintet set about trying maintain their advantage, they were brought to heel by the yellow jersey group on the descent off the Tourmalet.
The stage was set for fireworks on the 13.6-kilometre climb up to the finish line at Hautacam, and when they came, it was Nieve up at the front of the race who lit the blue touchpaper, quickly distancing his breakaway companion, Kadri.
With 10 kilometres to go, American Chris Horner (Lampre) – winner of the 2013 Tour of Spain – attacked from the Nibali group, and Nibali himself jumped on to his wheel. But as the American slowed after his initial effort, Nibali kicked on again, and Nieve’s possible stage win for Sky suddenly looked in very real danger as, with nine kilometres to go, his advantage over the yellow jersey was down to just 30 seconds.
Just a kilometre later, Nibali had caught Nieve. The race for second place place was now on – both for the stage, and for on the podium in Paris.
Majka gave chase, but never looked like catching Nibali, and with six kilometres to go, the USA’s Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who had started the day in sixth place overall, took on the job of chasing Majka and Nibali. Pinot counter-attacked, followed by Péraud and van Garderen, and it was enough to send Valverde out of the back of the group.
Van Garderen, Pinot and Péraud didn’t look back. Those podium places were at stake, and deposing second-placed Valverde was a great way of two out of three of them achieving that goal in Paris.
With 3.5km to go, Pinot pushed again, keen to get rid of Péraud, and by then had Majka back in his sights. Valverde, meanwhile, had found a second wind, and went to the front of the chasing group in an attempt to save his podium position.
But it was a case of too little, too late, as Pinot appeared to be emptying the tank, while Péraud and van Garderen – superior time-triallists – might have been looking ahead to Saturday’s test against the clock as a way of reining back Pinot.
Nibali was still sitting pretty up at the head of affairs, but Pinot’s acceleration was enough to pull back Majka, and Pinot, Péraud, van Garderen and Majka would fight it out between them for second place.
Nibali crossed the line, pointing to his heart as he did so, his lead overall extended to 7:10.
“I pointed to my heart because I raced with my heart today,” Nibali said. “I really wanted to win because I’d seen the team work hard and be so united behind me, so I had to pay them back by winning.
“I’ve got a good lead, which helps me stay calm and relaxed,” he said. “Tomorrow will hopefully be a quiet day, and then there’s the time trial before Paris.”
Despite extending his lead, Nibali played down his superiority, pointing out to his consistency during his career.
“It’s a good lead but at the Giro I had a similar lead,” he said. “I felt good on the climb and I’ve felt good throughout the race and tried to gain time whenever possible. This year at the Tour I think it was a harder race, with lots of traps and difficult stages for everyone. This year is very different to two years ago when I was on the podium. That was a much flatter race, there were only two mountain finishes.”
Despite the mountains being over this year, Nibali refused to admit he has won the Tour and is awaiting the emotions of the Champs-Elysées in Paris on Sunday.
“I think it’s been a great Tour so far, but it’s not over yet. Winning is great and my wins are special, from the first one to this latest one. But I don’t think anything goes close to the emotions of the Champs-Elysées.”