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In a show of strength, Vuelta leader Vincenzo Nibali leads his GC rivals - Alejandro Valverde, Chris Horner, Joaquim Rodriguez and Domenico Pozzovivo - across the finish line at Peyragudes
Italian rides down challenges, finishes fourth
Vincenzo Nibali may have had no teammates on the last part of the Peyragudes but as Sky Team Principal Dave Brailsford said during the Tour de France, it's arguably better to have a strong leader and a somewhat weaker team than the other way round. And every day in the Vuelta a España Nibali - set to be a rival for Team Sky in the 2013 Tour - is proving Brailsford right.
Nibali may be isolated on the last climb, as he was at Peyragudes, but it is of little relevance when his Astana team - one of only two to remain at full strength in the Vuelta - have done a solid job of supporting him 100 percent up until the foot of the final ascent, as they did on Sunday's hardest single stage of the race.
Then when Nibali does a faultless job of chasing down his rivals every time the most dangerous of them make a move, it is becoming increasingly clear that even as the 28-year-old Sicilian continues to preach caution, the Vuelta is increasingly becoming his to lose. After Peyragudes, in fact, it is possible to say that only the Angliru and ensuring he avoids misfortune now stands between Nibali and a second Vuelta a España title.
"It was a very tough day, very long and cold, and similar to yesterday's," Nibali said after finishing fourth at the line in Peyragudes at the head of the little group of race favourites - again, another way of stamping his authority on the race.
"First Saxo-Tinkoff on the Bales and then Rodriguez was going for it, a lot, even Horner tried too, but we eventually got it sorted out," Nibali said afterwards.
"There were a lot of riders trying to get away early on, and that made for a very fast start and a very hard stage throughout. It seemed like everybody in the bunch wanted to get into the early break."
Still, Nibali has got through another tough day, his 50-second gap on Horner is looking increasingly insurmountable and Valverde and Rodriguez are beginning to talk more and more about fighting for a podium place or a stage win than toppling the Shark of Messina from the top spot.
As for Monday's stage, to the Sallent de Gallego, Nibali was his usual cautious self, even if it is by far the easiest of the three Pyrenean stages and the weather is set to improve again.
"At this point in the race, it's not the terrain, but tiredness that has the biggest impact on riders," he reasoned - and indeed, another nine riders abandoned on stage 15, making for 26 fewer riders in the Vuelta peloton in the last 24 hours alone.