CHAMROUSSE, France (VN) — The emotion on Vincenzo Nibali’s face was undeniable.
Standing atop the Tour de France podium at the mountain resort of Chamrousse — first as the stage winner, then as the maillot jaune, and again as the King of the Mountains — the weight of the moment sank in.
Nibali didn’t win the Tour de France on Friday, but he asserted his dominance over the rest of the peloton, riding away from his GC rivals on an interminably long and hot 18km climb to claim a third stage win at this year’s race, further padding his overall lead to a seemingly insurmountable 3:37 over Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde.
At this rate, it will take something catastrophic to stop the Astana rider from becoming the first Italian to win the Tour since 1998, and the wave of emotion that washed over Nibali on the podium reflected that realization.
Nibali doesn’t just have a massive lead, he’s also proven that he’s the strongest climber in the race. He’s now eight stages away from becoming a member of an exclusive club, as a winner of all three of cycling’s grand tours. Only five other men have completed that feat.
After the stage, VeloNews asked Nibali about that moment when it looked, for a split second, that he was on the cusp of a true emotional display.
“If I looked happier than I was for my first two stage wins, it’s because I was delighted to have gained important time over Valverde and Porte,” Nibali said. “My stage victory in Sheffield remains the least expected of the three. I did that on instinct, when there was so much distance to the finish, and it was my first-ever stage win at the Tour.
“Here in the mountains, it’s different because I was prepared for it. The victory came as well, but moreover, I finally felt freedom from that never-ending climb. The high temperatures made it an extremely hard day. And to win while wearing the yellow jersey makes the stage victory even more meaningful.”
Starting the stage with a 2:23 lead over Richie Porte, Nibali hadn’t needed to attack on the Chamrousse climb. But when Valverde attacked inside the final 10km, Nibali smoothly responded, calmly bridging the gap, alone, without even standing out of the saddle.
Nibali then launched his own move, 6.6km from the line, and Valverde couldn’t respond. No one could.
The Astana leader said he hadn’t planned to ride away to a stage victory but once he saw Porte struggling, he concentrated on trying to break Valverde.
“It was very hot, but the more you climbed, the better it got. Still the heat is the same for everybody,” said the 2010 Vuelta a Espana winner and 2013 Giro d’Italia champion. “I saw Porte had dropped off already, perhaps because of the heat, so my aim was to gain time on Valverde. I accelerated to get up to the two leaders [Rafal Majka and Leopold Konig] and we were collaborating, because we knew there was a long way to go to the finish and tomorrow (stage 14) will be a tough day. But there wasn’t great collaboration and I saw that Valverde and Pinot were coming back up to us, so I upped the tempo, and with that came the victory too.”
And with that may have come a Tour de France victory as well. In the end, Nibali took 50 seconds out of Valverde, a psychological victory on top of a stage win.
If Nibali should win this Tour, he will, of course, always be dogged by the disclaimer that reigning champion Chris Froome (Sky) and two-time winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) abandoned before the big mountains due to crashes.
However Nibali said he would have been difficult to beat, regardless of their misfortunes. And it’s worth noting that Nibali had already taken yellow when both men crashed out.
“I think I’m in the best form of anyone in this Tour,” Nibali said in Chamrousse. “I’m sorry we don’t have the battle we’d hoped for with Froome and Alberto, but I came here in great form to be very competitive. My level is very high.”
For a moment in Chamrousse, Nibali’s emotion was also very high. In nine days, he may just point to that moment as the realization that he’d won the Tour.