On the last of four Pyrenees ascents, Rafal Majka winked at a French TV camera and tugged playfully at a motorcycle’s antenna as, even this late in the Tour de France, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider made winning look easy as he took stage 17 on Wednesday.
For Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, the second ride in the mountains from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan, France, was more serious. However, “The Shark” still nibbled yet more seconds away from several of his closest challengers and the yellow jersey he has worn for all but two days of the race seemed to fit just a little more tightly ahead of the finish on Sunday.
Italy’s Nibali was even businesslike with his own prime minister, imploring him not to get too ahead of himself in celebration.
“It’s true that I received a text message from [Italian Prime Minister] Matteo Renzi, who invited me to Chigi Palace to celebrate my victory,” the Sicilian said, referring to the prime minister’s official residence. “I replied that only after winning — if I do so — I’ll be able to say that I’ll be present.”
Poland’s Majka, who also won stage 14 in the Alps, again showed he is the best climber in this Tour and tightened his grip on the polka-dot jersey awarded to the race’s king of the mountains.
Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti got the action going on the last climb with a solo breakaway with about 9km left, but could not hold Majka off. Visconti, who also is Sicilian, was second, 29 seconds back, and Nibali third, 46 seconds behind.
With a last Pyrenean day ahead, Majka could ensure that he takes the red-dotted jersey home. His closest rival for it when the stage started was Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, who swatted the air in frustration at Majka when the Pole broke away on the last climb.
Majka said he felt “comfort” in the last 5km in part because he had been saving up energy a day earlier by riding easier. He finished in a bunch 24.5 minutes behind Australian teammate Michael Rogers, who won stage 16.
Nibali, who has called himself a “flag-bearer of anti-doping,” made his latest case to become the first Italian to win the Tour in 16 years since Marco Pantani, who was once convicted for doping.
Nibali gained just less than a minute on four of his closest rivals. Second-placed Alejandro Valverde of Spain made a valiant recovery for Movistar on the last ascent to avoid even more damage, but still trails by 5 minute, 26 seconds.
The exception was Jean-Christophe Peraud of France, who hugged closely on the leader’s back wheel to come fourth. With his performance, the 37-year-old Frenchman made it an even closer race for the podium spots. He is fourth overall, 6:08 behind Nibali, but just eight seconds slower than compatriot Thibaut Pinot, third overall.
The US’ Tejay van Garderen, in sixth, also lost about a minute to Nibali and trails by 10:19.
Since all three past Tour winners of crashed out during the Grand Boucle, Nibali has been in a class of his own.
Reigning champion and Team Sky rider Chris Froome of Britain crashed out on the fifth stage with a broken hand and wrist, while two-time former winner and Tinkoff-Saxo leader Alberto Contador of Spain broke his shinbone in a fall on the 10th stage on Bastille Day.
Andy Schleck, who won in 2010 champion, but was never a serious contender this year, did not even make it to French territory, having quit after the opening three stages in Britain when he too hit the deck.
After crossing third in the 17th stage, the 29-year-old Sicilian admitted he was not even pushing himself to his limits.
“My condition is very good and I’m ready to push right to the end, but when I get to the end of a stage I’m not giving everything because I don’t have to, and I’ve also had an eye on the next stage,” he said.
However, he admitted it would have been different had the best riders been there.
“If Chris Froome or Alberto were riding I would need to push much more, but then I would also have to manage the race differently and play more of a waiting game,” he added. “When they attack they are more explosive so I would have to be careful. I have a lot of respect for these riders.”
Nibali put his success at the Tour down to the long-term planning of his Astana team.
“It’s due to the work that we did with the whole team because we prepared for the Tour,” he said. “My objective since the beginning of the year was to be ready for the Tour de France and everything we did, we did it together.”
Another team working well together is Tinkoff-Saxo, who have won the past three mountain stages despite missing their leader.
“We had bad luck on the 10th stage [when Contador crashed], but after that stage we had a rest day and [manager] Bjarne [Riis] and [owner] Oleg [Tinkov] told the guys we needed to fight and win a stage,” Majka said. “We didn’t win one, we’ve won three and I feel good for Paris.”
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