After two and half of weeks of carrying the fight to Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky at the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali's stout resistance finally petered out on the final mountain stage to Peyragudes on Thursday as he lost a further 18 seconds to the yellow jersey.
Deep down, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider must have sensed that his was long a losing battle, but he gamely refused to lay down arms as the race entered the Pyrenees. Even after failing to make any inroads into Wiggins' lead in the "circle of death" the previous day, Nibali stepped into the breach once again as stage 17 got underway.
Shrouded in mist and low cloud, the descent of the day's first climb, the Col de Menté, was in theory a chance for Nibali to trouble Wiggins. In practice, with a long valley to follow and almost 120 kilometres still to race, Nibali's attack proved little more than a pleasant early distraction in a deadlocked stage.
Zipping clear of the yellow jersey group, Nibali made it across to the day's early escapees who were just 40 seconds up the road. Perhaps mindful of the history of the Col de Menté - Luis Ocaña's Tour challenge dramatically ended in a crash there in 1971 - Wiggins and Sky only tightened the leash on Nibali once the road began to flatten out.
The early escapees, meanwhile, were flustered by Nibali's compromising presence, with eventual stage winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) imploring him to relent.
"They were pulling behind and they brought the gap down from 40 seconds to 20, so I was disturbing the break a bit," Nibali said afterwards. "I stayed with them on the descent but then I sat up."
Though Nibali's hopes of a day-long war of attrition thwarted, he still set his Liquigas-Cannondale team to work on the penultimate climb, the hors categorie Port de Balès, with Ivan Basso prominent once again in thinning out the yellow jersey group.
By the time the final ascent began, Nibali's sights were trained more on stage victory than overhauling Wiggins or Froome, but unfortunately for the Sicilian, his efforts to date were beginning to take their toll. Liquigas continued to set the tempo until the final four kilometres, but when Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) accelerated, Nibali was dislodged from the back of the yellow jersey group.
"We worked because we were thinking about the stage, but unfortunately, I had a muscular problem and I couldn't pedal very well," Nibali explained afterwards. "My calf was hurting and I wasn't able to be as agile as I would have liked. This morning when I got on the bike I felt this small problem and I just hoped it wouldn't get any worse."
Nibali said that his ailment was simply a consequence of almost three weeks of accumulated fatigue. "We've done a lot of stages now, so a little problem like that is normal," he said. "I don't think it's anything worrying."
Nibali remains 3rd overall, 2:41 down on Wiggins, but is all but assured of a podium place, as he has more three minutes in hand over Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
After almost every stage on this Tour, Nibali has been asked to assess whether his glass was half full or half empty. With just three stages to go, he is drawing closer to a definitive conclusion.
"It's a bit of both," he said. "My lead over Van Den Broeck stayed more or less where it was and in spite of the little problem that I had, I was always up there with the best of them. I wanted to try for the stage, though, but it was very difficult."
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