The Italian completed a masterful three-week display, in which his dominance had been established as early as the second stage, with a controlled performance in Paris that even saw him briefly order the peloton to slow that his closest rival might regain contact after crashing on the Champs-Élysées.
A victory in Sheffield wrought of exceptional tactical acumen, third place on the treacherous cobbles of Arenberg, and three exhilarating victories in the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees crowned a performance that will establish Nibali as a worthy winner in the mind of any impartial observer, despite the withdrawal of pre-race favourites, Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), who crashed out on the fifth and tenth stages respectively.
In a prepared speech, the new champion thanked his parents, his team, the Tour, and France. “Now that I am here on the highest step of the podium at the Tour de France, it is more beautiful than I could ever have imagined,” he said. “I have worked for this for a very long time.” The Italian had already won the Vuelta a Espana in 2010 and last year’s Giro d’Italia.
Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) claimed second place overall despite crashing in Paris and being forced to ride hard with his team-mates to rejoin a bunch momentarily slowed by Nibali in a sporting gesture that did not meet with universal approval among those attempting to win the stage from a breakaway.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) completed the final podium, and won the white jersey competition for best young rider. The high finishing positions of two home riders have been viewed in some quarters as a renaissance for French cycling, not least by prime minister, Manuel Valls, the mayor of Évry, whose home town hosted the départ of today’s closing stage.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) completed a third consecutive victory in the points competition, achieved this year without a single stage victory. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) won the King of the Mountains competition after riding a second Grand Tour in a single year. The 24-year-old Pole claimed two stage victories and, along with team-mate, Michael Rogers, winner of the 16th stage from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, saved his team’s Tour after the untimely departure of team leader Contador.
Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) won the final stage by triumphing in a bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées. The German’s fourth stage victory capped a thrilling final encounter and was achieved with another exhilarating display of pure speed. His second consecutive victory in Paris underlines his status as the fastest man on the road, and came at the expense of stage winners, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp), who finished second and third respectively.
The stage in detail
Nibali began the stage by enjoying the customary glass of champagne with his team-mates as the peloton rolled at a speed conducive to celebration. Riders from rival teams conversed freely, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) rode with his helmet strap unfastened, and Michal Kwiatkowski tried the door handle of his Omega Pharma-Quick-Step team car, sparking momentary panic among its occupants.
Nibali’s Astana team led the peloton into the La Défense business district of Paris and shortly afterwards down the Rue de Rivoli and onto the Champs-Élysées as the Patrouille de France flew overhead, unleashing a giant French tricolore in smoke.
Perhaps inspired by the patriotic display, or at the very least by a crowed estimated to number half-a-million, it was a Frenchman who launched the first attack: Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), the six-time and reigning time trial champion of France. His advantage was short-lived, as French squad Cofidis joined the fray.
The first significant break came with 45km of this 3,663.5km race remaining, and to the delight of the multitude lining the roadside in Paris, as well as the millions of television viewers, contained the veteran, Jens Voigt (Trek), riding his final Tour de France. The popular German was joined by Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEDGE), briefly the maglia rosa at this year’s Giro d’Italia, and BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet, whose constant aggression had lit up the Spring Classics.
Alarmingly, Péraud soon found himself off the back. The Frenchman was quickly surrounded by a phalanx of his Ag2r-La Mondiale team-mates, some of whom had crashed with him, but whose task in rejoining the fast-moving bunch was hampered by the speed of the peloton. Nibali attempted to slow the bunch and ensure fair play, to the disgust of Tuft, who slowed while attacks flew off the front. The crisis soon passed, thanks in part to the red car of race directeur, which completed the pacing of Péraud and co. back to the bunch. Caution became the peloton’s watchword as it passed through the corner in which Ag2r-La Mondiale had come to grief, suggesting the presence of fluid or some other obstacle on the course.
A quartet of riders containing José Serpa (Lampre-Merida), Team Sky’s Richie Porte, Michael Morkov (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Armindo Fonseca (Bretagne-Séché Environnement) rode clear with five laps and 35km remaining and established an advantage that quickly grew to 25 seconds. Behind, the sprinters’ teams were clearly unprepared to allow the escapees to establish a greater advantage, and Lotto Belisol and Giant-Shimano massed at the head of the peloton to raise the tempo. Double stage winner, Kristoff, punctured while his rivals drove the bunch and turned a huge gear in a bid to regain contact.
Twelve kilometres later, the advantage of the breakaway had fallen to 12 seconds, and its number reduced to three. Fonseca would play no further part in the fortunes of Porte, Morkov and Serpa, who rode on, seemingly unconcerned by the Frenchman’s departure. A lull in the efforts of the peloton, perhaps caused by riders dropping back to collect bidons from the support cars as the 20km to go cut-off mark was reached, saw their advantage extend to 23 seconds with three laps to go.
The gap fell to below 10 seconds for the first time with just 14km remaining. Just as the fight seemed to have drained from the breakaway, Porte launched a lone assault, diving to the extreme left of the road with the peloton gathered ominously in his wake. The Australian seemed intent on burying the memory of a disappointing Tour in which he failed to seized the advantage of leadership offered by team-mate Froome’s enforced departure.
World time trial champion, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), bellowed at his rivals as he attempted to find space on the extreme left of the bunch. The Panzerwagen had tasted victory for the second time in this 101st Tour just 24 hours earlier, but was clearly in no mood to finish meekly. Did the German have a third victory in mind, having established his ability to ride away from the peloton on stage nine? His team-mates joined Belgian rivals Lotto Belisol at the head of the bunch as the bell lap loomed.
Porte was first to begin the final lap, but as he crossed the line, his advantage had been reduced to just nine seconds. Mouth open and with constant glances back over his shoulder, the Tasmanian continued to drive as he swept past the statue of Jeanne d’Arc, but his capture appeared inevitable and was not long in coming.
Cheng Ji (Giant-Shimano), the first Chinese rider to contest the Tour and the lanterne rouge, regained contact after being lapped by the bunch, but his team-mates had other considerations, notably the fortune of leader, Kittel, winner of three stages already and seeking a second consecutive victory on the Champs, having ended Mark Cavendish’s run of four consecutive victories on the most exclusive avenue in France 12 months earlier.
Light rain began to fall with six kilometres to go, and Lotto Belisol’s riders gestured angrily at their rivals to take their share in the task of chasing down Porte. Katusha clearly did not regard Kristoff’s earlier difficulties as a bar to his participation in the finale, and began to jockey for position. Europcar, too, joined the fray, seeking victory for the feisty Bryan Coquard, the young French sprinter who had done much to animate the flat finishes and intermediate sprints of the previous three weeks.
Inveterate attacker, Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE), became the second Australian to launch an attack, but with the bunch now at full speed, his escape was doomed almost as soon as it began. Martin assumed his second role as diesel for the OPQS train, with Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw positioned on his wheel. Giant-Shimano showed equal intent, and, not for the first time, Sagan ploughed a lone furrow in the green jersey as the peloton reached the final bend.
The Slovak hit the front as the bunch exited the Rue de Rivoli but fell back, and ultimately finished in ninth place. OPQS thwarted Giant-Shimano’s bid to control the bunch at the entrance to the Champs, and Kristoff moved up without team-mates to begin the fight for position. John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) looked over his shoulder anxiously for his team-mate, but Kittel quickly emerged to go wheel-to-wheel with the Norwegian and with the stage 19 winner, Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp), who emerged seemingly from nowhere to try his luck against the peloton’s fastest finishers.
In the end, and to no one’s surprise, the victory went to Kittel, who matched the achievements of his 2013 Tour campaign by seizing a fourth victory with victory in Paris. The greater triumph, however, was Nibali’s, and the Italian – noble in victory – is likely to be a popular champion.
Tour de France 2014: stage 21 – result
1) Marcel Kittel (GER) – Giant-Shimano – 3.20.50
2) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – ST
3) Ramunas Navardauskas (LTU) – Garmin-Sharp
4) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol
5) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Omega Pharma-Quick-Step
6) Bernhard Eisel (AUSTRIA) – Team Sky
7) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Europcar
8) Alessandro Petacchi (ITA) – Omega Pharma-Quick-Step
9) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale
10) Romain Feillu (FRA) – Bretagne-Séché Environnement
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 89.59.06
2) Jean-Christophe Péraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +7.37
3) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +8.15
4) Alejandroi Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +9.40
5) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +11.24
6) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +11.26
7) Leopold Konig (POL) – NetApp-Endura +14.32
8) Haimar Zubeldia (ESP) – Trek Factory Racing +17.57
9) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +18.11
10) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +21.15