It may well have been his best chance to break up the Sky duopoly at the head of the general classification of the Tour de France, however Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) was held at arm's length by Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome on the road to Bagnères-de-Luchon on stage 16.
Wednesday's queen stage marked only the sixth time in the history of the Tour that the fearsome quartet of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde were tackled on the same day. The desolate roads of the "Circle of Death" – not to mention its treacherous descents – seemed the perfect stage for an offensive from Nibali, but as the shadows lengthened on a sweltering afternoon in the Pyrenees, he found that he was tilting at windmills.
Emerging from doping control afterwards, Nibali was unsure whether he was contented or frustrated by a day that saw him break even with the Sky pair but distance Cadel Evans (BMC). "We seem to be set for a place on the podium but there's a bit of disappointment because today I thought I would do something a little better," he admitted.
The Liquigas-Cannondale offensive began on the penultimate climb of the Aspin. After an anonymous Tour to date, Ivan Basso took on the role of gregario di lusso. His tempo, resolute rather than rasping, managed to shed Evans from the leading group but the primary aim was to strip Froome and Wiggins of their support ahead of the final ascent.
"Ivan's acceleration was a bit to skim off a few Sky riders, as the team is very strong," Nibali explained. "We saw that the strength was high in the group although Evans did suffer."
Evans gamely battled up to the yellow jersey group in the valley ahead of the Peyresourde, but he was definitively deposited out the back when Basso hit the front again midway up the climb, all but guaranteeing Nibali a spot on the podium in Paris.
As the gradient sharpened 4 kilometres from the summit of the Peyresourde, Nibali played his hand, attacking with purpose and opening an immediate gap over the yellow jersey group.
It was right about the point where Marco Pantani had shot away from Jan Ullrich when the Tour tackled the same route in 1998, but this, we are told, is a different era. While Nibali's surge was too much for the most of the yellow jersey group, Froome calmly led Wiggins across to the Sicilian's rear wheel.
"I made two, three or even four very strong accelerations to see if they'd crack, but it was very hard," said Nibali, who was unable to shake off the Sky pair. On the descent of the Peyresourde, his preferred battleground, the trio opted to lay down arms.
"The descent wasn't very favourable so we rode together to the finish. It was a very hard day, too, with the heat," Nibali said. "I'm happy with that because I always said the podium was my ambition but you always have ambitions of something better.
"This year I've worked specifically on changes of rhythm and I've improved, but it wasn't enough to break Sky today."
The Liquigas team hotel was just adjacent to the finish line, and Nibali opted to take the shortest route to his room, hopping a barrier while a soigneur carefully nursed his bike after him. Before taking his leave, Nibali didn't need to be reminded that he was running out of road.
"Tomorrow is another day," he said. "But it's getting harder and harder and more and more complicated."
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