Italy's Vincenzo Nibali wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey rides in a breakaway during the 145.5 km eighteenth stage of the 101st edition of the Tour de France.
By Elliot Chester
July 24, 2014

The Pirate. The Phoenix. The Pious. The Champion of Champions. And now, the Shark of Messina.

With a storming ride up to the summit of Hautacam to conclude the 145.5 km (90.4 mile) stage 8 of the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali—whose bicycle frame depicts the sea predator for which he is nicknamed—laid waste to the field and joined Marco Pantani, Felice Gimondi, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi on the short list of the greatest Italian riders ever to conquer the Tour de France.

Nibali’s stage win was his fourth of this year’s Tour. The victory left him with an insurmountable 7:10 lead over Thibaut Pinot of FDJ, who finished second on the stage and moved into second overall when Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde fell back from Pinot’s chase group on the ascent. Valverde slipped to fourth, conceding third to AG2R rider Jean-Christophe Peraud, but only 15 seconds separate the Spaniard from second ahead of Saturday’s final time trial. “I was at my limit today for sure,” said Valverde. “I can take the second place back.”

Nibali wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey rides in the pack.

Though Valverde made the first significant move of the day by attempting an ill-fated escape on the descent of the mammoth Col du Tourmalet, the spirited chase of Nibali’s Astana squad—which also kept the day’s breakaway from gaining more than just over four minutes on the road—foreshadowed the maillot jaune’s intentions. “Vincenzo wanted to prove he was the boss,” said Astana manager Alexander Vinokourov after the stage.

With 10 km to ride on the stage, Lampre’s Chris Horner launched an attack off the front of Nibali’s group to track down Sky’s Mikel Nieve, who was 1:10 up the road. Horner, a 42-year-old American riding his seventh Tour de France, began the stage in 18th place and had no chance of making up the nearly 35 minutes that separated him from Nibali, but nonetheless, the race leader stayed right on his wheel. Nobody else—not Pinot, not Valverde, not French wunderkind Romain Bardet, not young American hope Tejay van Garderen—could follow Nibali’s acceleration.

Moments later, neither could Horner, who struggled home in 19th. At the Vuelta a España last September, their roles were reversed. Then, Horner began the penultimate day of the race with a three-second lead over Nibali and clawed back multiple attacks from the Italian on the ultrasteep Alto de L'Angliru before pulling away in the final kilometer to ensure the then-41-year-old's status as the oldest man ever to win a Grand Tour.

Now, Nibali—barring a crash or a similar catastrophe on the three remaining stages—will become the seventh Italian to win the grandest Tour of them all, and in a most convincing style. “I wanted to leave a footprint in the Pyrenees.” said Nibali. “I rode [Hautacam] like an uphill time trial.”

Notes from the Tour

  • Though Nibali could still technically lose the Tour before Sunday’s ceremonial finish in Paris, Cannondale’s Peter Sagan has already won his third straight points competition. A maximum of 150 points are up for grabs on the three remaining stages; Sagan’s 408 give him 155 more than Europcar’s Bryan Coquard. Sagan now merely needs to complete the race to earn a green jersey on the Champs-Élysées. Poland’s Rafal Majka has wrapped up the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey in a similar fashion.
  • Nibali’s four stage wins will be the most by a Tour winner since Laurent Fignon claimed five in 1984 en route to his second straight Tour triumph. Lance Armstrong won at least four stages on three occasions (1999, 2002 and 2004), but his results have since been invalidated by the UCI following the American’s doping admissions.