The Italian, who has worn the yellow jersey for all but one day since stage three, underlined his dominance of the 101st edition of the Tour by triumphing on the hors categorie Hautacam, finishing more than a minute ahead of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), who has now secured the polka dot jersey to accompany his two stage wins.
Pinot’s ride moves the 24-year-old Frenchman up to second overall, leapfrogging Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who drops to fourth, with Pinot’s compatriot, Jean-Christophe Peraud (Agr2 La Mondiale), now occupying the third spot on the podium. Just 15 seconds separate the three riders, setting up a tantilising battle in Saturday’s individual time trial.
One position in no doubt, however, is that of Nibali at the top of the general classification and the 29-year-old must now only stay upright on the final three stages to win the race and become only the sixth rider in history to triumph at all three Grand Tours.
The stage in detail
With stages 19 and 21 likely to end in a bunch sprint, and stage 20 an individual time trial, the third and final day in the Pyrenees offered many riders in the peloton a final crack at a stage win and a 20-rider group went up the road early on the 145.5km route from Pau to Hautacam.
Having climbed the two category three ascents early in the race, the break reached the first of two hors categorie climbs, the Col du Tourmalet, and that blew the group apart, with Ag2r La Mondiale’s Blel Kadr, who won stage eight, and Team Sky’s Mikel Nieve battling it out to be the first man over the summit and claim the 5,000 euro Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize, eventually clinched by Kadr.
The pair then moved on to the Hautacam and Nieve wasted little time in dropping his escape companion in a bid to save Team Sky’s Tour with a stage win, while back in the what remained of the main bunch, the 2014 Vuelta a Espana champion, Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), attacked with 10.5km remaining of the 13.6km ascent, which rises at an average gradient of 7.8 per cent, and only Nibali was able to follow the 42-year-old.
Nibali made his intentions clear – to win on the final summit finish of the 2014 Tour de France in the maillot jaune – by attacking Horner with more than 9km to the finish, with Nieve only 45 seconds up the road.
And it then took him less than 1,500m to reel in Nieve, passing the Team Sky man with a fierce seated acceleration, not even glancing at the Spaniard as he left him for dead.
Nibali first asserted himself as the strongest rider in the race on stage two, jumping from the pack of an elite lead group to claim his first stage win and the yellow jersey, and, following the withdrawals of Chris Froome (Team Sky) on stage five and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) on stage ten, the Italian has never come under threat, and that continued here, with Nibali effectively time trialing his way to victory.
Majka, needing to finish in the top six to secure victory in the King of the Mountains classification and keep the polka dot jersey from Nibali’s shoulders, attacked from the chasing group with 7.5km remaining in a bid to keep the jersey, rather than with any realistic ambition of catching Nibali, who by now had disappeared up the road.
Meanwhile, the race was on for the two remaining podium spots in Paris and Valverde began to crack and was dropped by a three-strong group which included Pinot, Peraud and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing). The trio bridged across to Majka and Pinot won the sprint for second on the stage from the Pole.
Pinot and Peraud’s efforts saw them move up to second and third overall to continue a fine Tour for France but those positions are far from secure with Valverde lurking so closely ahead of Saturday’s time trial.
Stage 18 belonged to Nibali, however, and, should he ride into Paris safely, the Astana man will become the first Tour de France winner to claim four road stages since Eddy Merckx in 1974.
Tour de France 2014: stage 18 – result
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 4:04:17 minutes
2 Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +1’10”
3) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo +1’12”
4) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale +1’15”
5) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing – same time
6) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale +1’53”
7) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +1’57”
8) Leopold Konig (CZE) – Team NetApp-Endura – same time
9) Haimar Zubeldia (SPA) – Trek Factory Racing +1’59”
10) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar – same time
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 80:45:45 hours
2) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +7’10”
3) Jean-Christophe Péraud (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale +7’23”
4) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +7’25”
5) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale +9’27”
6) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +11’34”
7) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +13’56”
8 Laurens Ten Dam (NED) Belkin Pro Cycling +14’15”
9 Leopold Konig (CZE) – NetApp-Endura +14’37”
10 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (SPA) – Trek Factory Racing +16’25”