Tour de France leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) hosted a climbing masterclass on Thursday's 18th stage between Pau and Hautacam, winning the stage by 1:10 from a chasing quartet led home by Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Wednesday's stage winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ag2r's Jean-Christophe Péraud and BMC's Tejay van Garderen, who crossed the line together in that order.
"I wanted to win the stage for the team that worked so hard for me," Nibali said after his victory. "It's important to win in the Pyrenees, I wasn't really thinking about the GC."
Nibali has now extended his race lead to 7:10 over Pinot, who deposed former second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who lost time on the final climb up to Hautacam. Péraud has moved up to third place, 7:23 behind Nibali, while Valverde is now down to fourth, 7:25 down.
It was the 2014 Tour's final stage in the mountains, but Saturday's long 54-kilometre time trial is certain to shake things up yet further, as the fight for the podium is now closer than ever.
How it unfolded
An early breakaway of 20 included Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar teammates, Kévin Reza and Bryan Coquard, Sky's Mikel Nieve, Lars Boom (Belkin) and stage 8 winner Blel Kadri of Ag2r.
Along with Europcar, four other teams were represented by multiple riders: Movistar's Jesus Herrada and Jon Izaguirre, Alessandro De Marchi and Marco Marcato for Cannondale, Tiago Marchado and Bartosz Huzarski for NetApp, and IAM's Sylvain Chavanel and Marcel Wyss, although Europcar was the only team with three riders. The rest of the group was made up by Katusha'a Yuriy Trofimov, Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Julien Simon (Cofidis), Bretagne's Florian Guillou, FDJ's Matthieu Ladagnous and Daniel Oss (BMC)
Only eight teams - Astana, Garmin, Giant, Lampre, Lotto-Belisol, Orica-GreenEdge, Tinkoff and Trek - had missed the move entirely, but an Astana-led peloton seemed content to let the break have some rope; their maximum lead topped out at just over four minutes after an hour of racing before Nibali's team began to ramp things up, pegging them at around three-and-a-half minutes and settling into cruise control.