Vincenzo Nibali was expected to win the 2014 Tour de France after a strong performance in the Alps allowed him to assume a clear lead in the general classification, but his display in the 18th stage from Pau to Hautacam underlined his superiority over the remainder of the peleton. After two difficult stages in the Pyrenees, a third day involved riding over the fearsome Col du Tourmalet and then the final climb to Hautacam. That posed no problem to Nibali as he simply accelerated away from the field to win his fourth stage of the race as the other riders appeared resigned to contesting a podium position in Paris.
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde plus Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud will contest the podium positions in the individual time trial on Saturday but the gap of over seven minutes between Nibali and second placed Pinot is one the widest margin leads in recent years and underlines the dominance of the Italian in the current Tour.
Such has been the impressive form of Nibali in the past three weeks that he has given the impression of merely enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll on the bike. Detractors will argue that he has taken advantage of the withdrawals of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and the absence of Giro winner Nairo Quintana whereas early season injuries to Chris Horner and Joaquim Rodriguez have hampered their challenge in the 2014 Tour.
Yet Nibali has never appeared to be in difficulty during any stage and has matched the accelerations of others with ease especially on the final climb of Thursday when Chris Horner briefly threatened a solo ride to the summit. This would have deprived the Italian of much sought after victory in the Pyrenees after already winning stages in England, The Vosges and The Alps.
Although Nibali will now secure a Tour de France crown to add to his 2010 Vuelta a Espana and 2013 Giro d’Italia victories, the 2014 Tour has at least proved to be a reasonable result for the home support. They have witnessed the emergence of French youngsters Pinot and Romain Bardet as genuine candidates for Le Tour success in the years ahead and they could become long-awaited successors to the great home-bred cyclists Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon who dominated the Tour in the 1980’s.
For now, they lack the strength for sustained attacks in the mountains and have been unable to follow Nibali in the latter kilometres of the mountain stages. Next year they may be closer but until then credit should be reserved for the undoubted master of the 2014 Tour as Nibali completes the grand slam of the main European cycling tours.