CHAMROUSSE, France – If Vincenzo Nibali was looking happier Friday after the Tour de France rode into the Alps, here’s why: His top rival fell out of contention, he gained nearly a minute on his next-biggest challenger and oh, he won Stage 13 to boot.
On a sunbaked and melting Alpine road, the 29-year-old Italian cemented his control of cycling’s greatest race with a solo-finish victory that was an afterthought to gaining time on other title contenders.
Team Sky’s Richie Porte, who began the day in second, saw his title hopes all but vanish after he lost about 9 minutes to Nibali on the last climb along the grueling 122-mile trek from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse ski station.
Ever cautious, calm and understated after his stage win, Nibali noted that three big Alpine climbs still await today and other punishing ascents are on tap in the Pyrenees next week.
“For the coming days, I only know that I have to remain quiet,” he said.
But in the winner’s circle, where he collected the yellow jersey for the 11th time this year, Nibali perhaps let slip a bit more happy emotion – knowing that a first Tour victory for an Italian since Marco Pantani in 1998 just got closer.
“I expect more attacks tomorrow in another very hard stage and next week,” Nibali said. “My advantage over Porte is good now. He’s the rider I feared the most in the closing time trial.”
If Nibali’s mountain dominance keeps up – on Monday, he won the only other high-mountain stage so far – the 33-mile time-trial in Stage 20 from Bergerac to Perigueux is the only real challenge left in his way.
The unexpected has gone Nibali’s way. He surprised himself by winning an up-and-down Stage 2 in the hills and dales of Yorkshire and capturing his first Tour yellow jersey. He mastered cobblestone treachery in Stage 5, when 2012 Tour champ Chris Froome crashed out. And then two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador went out five stages later after a fast downhill crash fractured his tibia.
In a sport where many dominant riders in past years later turned out to be drugs cheats, Nibali confronted the issue of doping a day earlier, saying he expected questions about it. “This theme belongs to the past,” he said, crediting recent efforts like enhanced testing.
This 101st Tour could become the third straight in which the winner locked up victory from before the halfway point. Last year, Froome was in yellow from the eighth stage onward. In 2012, Bradley Wiggins had the shirt for good after Stage 7.
Nibali took it in Stage 2, lost it in Stage 9, and regained it a day later. He’s hoping to take it home after a largely ceremonial ride on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 27.
“Vincenzo is the strongest rider in the race, but after him, there is a place to take,” France’s Romain Bardet said, referring to the final podium.