Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) proved at the Tour de France on Saturday that even at 34 he's capable of producing some stunning triumphs. The Italian earned his sixth Tour de France stage win, of his 15 Grand Tours, after a solo attack halfway up the interminable slopes of the Val Thorens climb on stage 20.
Second overall in the Giro d'Italia this May, but without securing an actual win, Nibali's last victory came thanks to another solo breakaway in Milano-Sanremo 15 months ago. That involved a dramatic blast over the Poggio, and the bunch chased him all the way to the Via Roma in Italy.
This time he had to produce a much longer effort and had the peloton snapping at his heels up the 33km ascent of the Val Thorens. The result, though, was the same.
"It wasn't easy after last year and my crash on L'Alpe d'Huez, I hadn't won a race since, so this is huge," Nibali told reporters.
"This win is for my grandfather, who passed away recently. It's also for all my team and staff who helped me to get back to my best."
Along with Mikel Landa (Movistar), Nibali was one of a tiny group of riders who did both Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France this year. Nibali admitted that it wasn't easy and that he was tired from the Giro.
"I'd like to have been an overall contender," the 2014 Tour de France winner said. "But it all fell apart, particularly in the second week. I thought about going home, but I wanted to stay here to do what I could and honour the race.
"I knew there were some stages at the end of the Tour that would suit me. And finally, that win arrived today."
Widely rated as one of cycling's top strategists, Nibali said that he had initially opted not to go in the opening break on stage 20.
"I knew the contenders' teams would work hard to pull them back, they wanted a win today.
"But then I saw the break was going to be a very big one" - of up to 24 riders at one point - "and that made me change my mind completely."
Then as the break's margin dropped steadily and reached beneath two minutes, Nibali forged into the front positions and opened up more of a gap.
"In the last 15 kilometres or so, I decided we had to try and split things up, with [Ilnur] Zakarin, [Michael] Woods and [Tony] Gallopin. We tried to keep the gap open." Finally, with 10 kilometres left to race, Nibali went for it, quickly squeezing his rivals off his wheel and heading for the summit alone.
The gap was never much more than a minute on the interminable climb of Val Thorens. At one point when Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) went for it, Nibali's margin over his chasers dropped perilously low.
Nibali clung on tenaciously for the solo win, even though Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) come to within 10 seconds of the Italian on the line. Nibali proved to be unreachable - and Bahrain-Merida's second summit finish stage win of the Tour after Dylan Teuns on the Planches des Belles Filles in the first week was in the bag.
"I was scared that the favourites would push hard in the last part, and I had the times coming through over the radio. I knew Yates had attacked and got to within 45 seconds. I just never stopped hoping, but it was tough, almost like an uphill time trial," Nibali said. "The last part was terribly tough, but I made it all the same."
As the winner of four Grand Tours, a reporter asked Nibali his opinion on Egan Bernal (Team Ineos). The Colombian is one day away from securing his first-ever Tour de France victory.
"I've never been a direct rival of Bernal, but he's raced brilliantly, and he's got the future on his side," Nibali said.
"It's difficult to compare him with other top riders - how many Grand Tour winners at 22 have there been? I think the most similar of recent years, maybe, is Alberto Contador."
In the meantime, Nibali proved that despite being 12 years Bernal's senior, he's still a force to be reckoned with in the Tour de France.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.