Tour de France: Nibali eyes Paris march in warning to British allies
The Tour de France's top three -- but not the final order -- was all but decided on yesterday's second of three Pyrenean stages as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali formed a working alliance to gain time on their overall rivals.
Should either or both of the two Britons, who are currently first and second in the overall standings, remain in the top three spots after today's final mountain stage, the path is clear, barring a disaster, for the first GB rider in the race's 108-year history to stand on the final podium in Paris.
"It's been a big step forward," Sky sports director Sean Yates said yesterday. "Nibali's proved he's the top guy (rival) and he's not given up hope, but tomorrow is not so hard and his chances will be more limited."
When Nibali's Liquigas squad upped the pace on the Aspin, the second-last climb, the front pack shrank to around 20, with 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans sliding instantly out the back on what proved to be a nightmare day for him.
The veteran Australian's difficulties intensified radically when Liquigas piled on the pressure again on the Peyresourde, and when Nibali made the first of two attacks, shattering the front group, the gaps yawned wider.
His head almost touching the bars, and shoulders swaying from side to side as he battled to limit the gap in intense heat, Evans lost nearly five minutes on his closest overall rivals, sliding from fourth to seventh and all hope of a second straight Tour was lost.
Nibali's move, meanwhile, brought a response from just two riders -- Froome and Wiggins. Spinning a characteristically high gear, Froome paced his team-mate and Tour leader up to the Italian's back wheel, and the three formed a working alliance over the Peyresourde summit that gained them nearly a minute on their closest rivals by the finish.
"The last mountain was very good for making gaps," Nibali said later. "I am pleased because I always said my ambition was the podium." Warning his two Sky rivals that such alliances can only go so far, the Sicilian said: "But being up there, you always want something more."
The stage win itself went to France's Thomas Voeckler, who shed breakaway companion Bryce Feillu on the Peyresourde to claim his second win in three years at Bagneres-de-Luchon and the King of the Mountains jersey.
The Tour, meanwhile, faces its final mountain-top finish today, the 15.4-kilometre climb of Peyragudes, which effectively represents Nibali's last chance to dislodge Froome and Wiggins. Should he fail, then only a last-minute disaster will prevent Britain from converting their first visits to a Tour's final podium into the country's first overall victory.
"The game's still on," Yates said, "and it's not over until we reach Paris, but I think, at the moment, we're looking good." (© Independent News Service)