Italian claims fourth stage victory
After two and half weeks of diligently aggregating his marginal gains, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) allowed himself an afternoon of indulgence on the Tour de France, motoring away from his rivals on the slopes of Hautacam to claim his fourth stage win of the race and push his overall lead out beyond seven minutes.
Nibali had been almost measured in his domination of the Tour to this point. His single largest gain had came on the cobbles en route to Arenberg on stage 5, and he continued to manage the clock on the summit finishes that followed thereafter, augmenting his lead by seconds rather than minutes.
The Italian confessed on Wednesday that he had never been pushed to his limits on this Tour. In the absence of a direct challenge from his rivals at Hautacam, it seems, Nibali simply decided to test himself.
After responding to an acceleration from Chris Horner with a little over 10 kilometres remaining, Nibali took flight alone 500 metres later. He has given the impression of being in a race of his own for the past week. As if it were needed, this was the final confirmation.
"The climb of Hautacam was different to what I remembered when I did it in the past, but I managed my effort and I approached it like it was a mountain time trial," Nibali said.
"On the last climb, maybe I went a bit early. Horner had upped the pace and I was afraid of leaving the stage getting away from me. I wanted to win the stage badly for the team and the ragazzi."
It was no surprise that none of Nibali's closest followers on general classification dared to lift the pace when he attacked, for they have long been focused on the battle for second and third place. Instead, the most striking visual affirmation of his startling superiority came when he cruised past earlier escapee Mikel Nieve (Sky) with his legs whirring at an eye-watering cadence.
"I couldn't hear the radio well and there was a lot of noise and I couldn't hear Nieve's gap. He's a good rider and I didn't want him to gain too much time," Nibali said. "I wanted to win the stage for the team. That was my focus, rather than gaining as much time as possible."
Hautacam is a young climb in Tour de France terms, but it has marked the race in a way that has belied its tender years. Its great misfortune, perhaps, is that it was first scaled 20 years ago, at the very height of the EPO era.
The Pyrenean outpost was thus a site of coronation for Miguel Indurain (1994), Bjarne Riis (1996) and Lance Armstrong (2000), while on the race's last visit in 2008, Leonardo Piepoli was stripped of victory after testing positive for EPO. Only time will tell if the legacy of this year's ascent is a happier one.
Certainly, winning alone, in yellow and by so much atop Hautacam was always likely to draw comparisons with the less than illustrious forebears. After Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov labelled Nibali as the "patron" of the Tour, the Sicilian was pointedly reminded that the same word had been used to describe Armstrong's discredited dominance.
"As for the juxtaposition with Lance... it seems very different to me," Nibali said. "What happened in the past should be left in the past. I've always been very transparent. I've got a gap of seven minutes but I don't think it's been because of a single great performance on one day.
"I've put in performances from the very start, taking seconds here and there, that's how I've gained my advantage. As for my rivals, some of them have gained more time on one day and the next day they've paid for that."
Nibali has climbed better than his rivals throughout the race, and has seemed to recover faster from his daily efforts to boot. Hautacam was the culmination.
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