July 24, 2014

ARGELES-GAZOST, France (AP) The Tour de France's final day in the mountains saw both of France's podium hopefuls rise in the overall standings, while Vincenzo Nibali won atop the punishing Hautacam climb to leave the peloton even further in his slipstream.

The 145.5-kilometer (90-mile) Stage 18 over two hors categorie climbs from Pau to Hautacam left three riders within fifteen seconds of each other and fighting for a spot on the final podium when the Tour reaches Paris on Sunday: Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Alejandro Valverde.

Here are five things to know about the Tour on Thursday:

DIRTY LAUNDRY: Vincenzo Nibali has won 16 yellow jerseys after his latest victory atop Hautacam in the Pyrenees. But the man almost certain to become the first Italian in 16 years to conquer cycling's most difficult race has kept his laundry team busy by repeatedly reusing two of the jerseys that he holds in especially high regard. Nibali wears one of the same two jerseys every day - the first one he won with a victory on Stage 2 in Sheffield, and the other he won on the epic Stage 5 run across the cobblestones of northern France, according to French sports daily L'Equipe. Astana team press officer Chris Baldwin said there was nothing superstitous about Nibali's reusing the jerseys every day, or his preference for matching his yellow tunic with his regular team-issued sky-blue cycling shorts, rather than a full yellow ensemble like that worn by Stage 1 yellow-jersey winner Marcel Kittel. ''He's not superstitious, he's just respectful of the yellow jersey,'' Baldwin says. ''If he's still in yellow on the last day, then he'll be in all yellow - the shorts, the bike, everything.''

GREY JERSEY: Peraud, of French team AG2R, could become the oldest first-time finisher on the podium. The 37-year-old Frenchman jumped into third place overall by riding away with a select group of top climbers including compatriot Pinot near the summit of Hautacam, and leaving Alejandro Valverde, who fell from second overall to fourth, 44 seconds behind. Peraud is a transplant from professional mountain biking who rode his first Tour in 2011, when he was that year's oldest Tour rookie. No rider older than Peraud has ever finished on the final podium for the first time, according to Cillian Kelly, a cycling blogger who runs the popular Irish Pelton website. The winner of this year's Criterium International in Corsica says he has his sights on leap-frogging climbing specialist Pinot to reach the podium's second-highest step when the Tour finishes on Sunday. ''It's clear that now I'm targeting the second place,'' Peraud said in Pau before the stage. ''I need to take time, why not today or in the time trial?'' Peraud is considered much stronger in time trials than Pinot, whose 13-second lead on Peraud could easily melt over the course of Saturday's long 54-kilometer rolling course between Bergerac and Perigeux.

CA-NIBALI: In a feat not seen in pro cycling since the days of Eddy ''The Cannibal'' Merckx, Nibali has racked up four in-line stage victories on the Tour. Cycling historians have to go back to 1970 to find the last time that was equalled. By comparison, last year's winner, Chris Froome, won two in-line stages, and Australia's Cadel Evans one in 2011. Bradley Wiggins won no in-line stages in 2012, only time trials. ''Today I was good. But my team did great work, they didn't let the breakaway get too much time,'' Nibali said. ''I felt good at the end but the last kilometers were very difficult.''

TOW-AWAY ZONE: Spain's Alejandro Valverde lost more than his second place overall atop Hautacam - he also lost teammate Jose Joaquin Rojas. Rojas, a Movistar rider and four-time Tour finisher, was ejected from the race by the Tour jury after he used a tow from one of his team cars on the 2,115-meter Tourmalet. Rojas was also fined 200 Swiss franc ($220), and the team car was banned from the rest of the race. TV cameras didn't appear to have caught the infringement, but the tow must have been prolonged to earn such a harsh penalty. Rafal Majka of Poland received only a 50 Swiss franc fine and a 10-second penalty for briefly grabbing onto a motorbike antenna at the foot of Wednesday's final climb. Valverde will not be significantly hurt by the loss of Rojas, as only Saturday's individual time trial remains as a chance to regain time. Valverde was distanced by Nibali, Pinot and Peraud on the climb to Hautacam, and sits in fourth place, 7:25 back.

POLSKA-DOT JERSEY: Majka continued to draw accolades as perhaps the revelation of the Tour. He locked up the polka dot jersey for best climber with his third-place finish. The Tinkoff-Saxo rider is also assured of winning the red-and-white spotted jersey when the race finishes on Sunday, as Stage 18 was the last in the mountains. Majka also has two stage wins to go with his climbers' jersey - not a bad haul for his first Tour. ''In Paris, for sure, we'll celebrate,'' Majka said. Teammate Michael Rogers picked up a stage as well, giving Tinkoff-Saxo three stages so far. Team boss Bjarne Riis described his young rider's first Tour as ''sensational.'' Riss said: ''He's probably considered the surprise of the race but I've known his potential for quite a while now and it's unfolding for everyone to see.''

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