PAU, France (VN) — Some have complained that the race for the yellow jersey has been boring, especially with the regal dominance of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), but no one can suggest that the Tour de France isn’t exciting.
Not only has every day produced quality racing and quality winners, but there is a tight battle for the final podium — in fact, it hasn’t been this close in years.
On stage 18, Nibali stamped his absolute authority on the Tour, riding away from a fractured peloton to win his fourth stage to secure what, barring disaster, will be Italy’s first Tour win since Marco Pantani in 1998.
Behind him, three riders are separated by just 15 seconds in a nail-biting fight to secure the remaining two places on the podium.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who’s been hot and cold throughout the climbing stages across the Alps and Pyrénées, had another uneven day, slipping from second to fourth, now 7:25 back.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) followed a resurgent Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and climbed into the “virtual” podium spots in second and third, with just three days of racing left.
Pinot is now 7:10 behind the imperious Nibali, and Peraud slotted into third at 7:23 back.
Barring splits in the peloton or crashes Friday, the three will duke it out for the two remaining places of honor in Saturday’s 54km time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux.
“I was on my limits today,” admitted Valverde at the line, after allowing the French pair to bounce ahead of him on GC. “I’m very, very tired, but everything depends on the form on the day. If I have good legs, I can take second place back.”
With the French savoring the prospect of their first podium finisher since Richard Virenque in 1997, Thursday’s crushing climb on the Hautacam served up the tantalizing possibility of having two French riders on the final podium. That hasn’t happened since 1984, when Laurent Fignon won his second Tour, and Bernard Hinault was second.
As Valverde said, whoever can recover best from three brutal stages across the Pyrénées will have the best shot to earn a podium spot.
As it stacks up now, 37-year-old Peraud, a former French national time trial champion and Olympic mountain bike silver medalist, stands the best chance to assure France a spot on the podium.
“I think we’re all in the same boat, all within  seconds. It’s going to be close for the podium,” Peraud said. “It was a huge effort today. I really suffered. I could have lost everything, to be honest.”
Thursday’s final climbing stage of 2014′s wild Tour route provided the podium protagonists their last chance to bolster their hopes for one of the prestigious places on the final podium.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), the plucky 23-year-old, sacrificed his chances for the second day in a row, and helped pace the clearly struggling Peraud in the final grinding push to the Hautacam summit. Bardet, who has sparkled on the steepest climbs throughout this Tour, settled into fifth, at 9:27 back, and will likely lose considerable time in the final time trial, and could even see van Garderen, 2:07 behind the young Frenchman in sixth, nudge ahead of him.
Van Garderen will surely regret his bad day Tuesday, when he lost more than four minutes to his podium rivals. The 25-year-old Coloradan bounced back with a vengeance Thursday, setting a driving pace behind the attacking Nibali to force the selection. He was hoping to drop either Pinot or Peraud to revive his outsider podium hopes, but the Frenchmen held tough.
“I just had in my mind that this is the last mountain stage before the end of the Tour, so if you’re going to do something, you have to do it today,” van Garderen said. “When I was setting a pretty hard tempo, I would look back, and Pinot always looked pretty easy on my wheel.”
Despite his brave efforts, the podium now looks out of reach for van Garderen. A strong final time trial could move him ahead of Bardet into fifth, equaling his career-best finish in 2012.
Pinot, meanwhile, proved yet again his steady consistency in the mountains. With the help of van Garderen, he was able to shake Valverde, but he couldn’t drop the stubborn Peraud. His compatriot looked on the verge of cracking, but Pinot couldn’t finish him off, and will enter the final time trial with a much smaller advantage — just 15 seconds — than he would have hoped, previously estimating he would need around a minute before the TT to have serious hopes of reaching the podium.
“I’m pretty happy about (second overall). But it’s only 15 seconds so it’s pretty close,” Pinot said. “The time trial is not going to be easy, but I will fight as hard as I can to get them. 15 seconds is a very small advantage.”
All three enter the 2014 Tour’s lone time trial essentially tied, with just 15 seconds separating Pinot and Valverde. It’s going to be a heart-breaker for one of three riders who falls short to finish fourth. And it could come down to a matter of seconds.
None of the three are pure time trial specialists, though Peraud is perhaps the best technically of the trio against the clock.
Valverde is the most prolific winner of the three, with more than 50 professional wins to Peraud’s three, and Pinot’s six, but he’s been terribly inconsistent in the Tour, never really imposing his will, except Tuesday, when Movistar ganged up on a struggling van Garderen to all but eliminate the American’s podium chances.
Pinot, meanwhile, seems to have momentum on his side, though that hardly matters in a time trial. He’s been consistent across the Tour, and has improved his descending skills to make him a legitimate podium threat throughout this Tour.
But as the name suggests, the race of truth will reveal who is the strongest of the three at the end of what’s been an excruciating Tour for the peloton.
A final time trial is often more about legs and will than time trial technique or ability, so it’s hard to tell who will come up with the winning ride Saturday.
Heartache and ecstasy could be separated by mere seconds.