Reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali won the 19th stage of the Tour de France yesterday as Nairo Quintana clawed back time on race leader Chris Froome.
Italian rider Nibali went some way to rescuing what has been a difficult Tour defence by claiming a stunning solo victory on the 138-kilometre stage from Saint Jean de Maurienne to La Toussuire.
Nibali made his initial move when Froome adjusted his bike after a mechanical stop on the Col de la Croix de Fer.
Quintana took second on the stage, 44 seconds behind Nibali, but finished 30sec ahead of third-placed Froome to perhaps reignite the yellow jersey race.
Colombian Quintana is now 2min 38sec back from the Briton ahead of today’s 20th stage on the Alpe d’Huez.
But it was the return of the man known as the ‘Shark of Messina’ that most animated an enthralling day in the Alps.
“It has been a very difficult year. The start of the Tour was difficult for me, I had some bad luck and wasn’t in the best shape,” said Nibali, 30.
“I only found my form at the end. This is a great victory, I’m delighted.
“The fans pushed me and motivated me, there were a lot of of Italians supporting me. This is a great win for me, for my family and for Italy.”
Nibali attacked out of a group of leaders on the hors category Col du Croix de Fer with almost 60km remaining.
He reeled in lone escapee Pierre Rolland on the next climb and then dropped the Frenchman on the final ascent of La Toussire.
Having suffered badly in the Pyrenees and dropped out of overall contention, Nibali has fought his way back up to fourth following his fifth Tour stage win -- he took four stages 12 months ago on the way to the yellow jersey.
Behind him, Quintana made his move with 5.5km left on the final climb and steadily eked out a gap on Froome, who was the only rider able to react.
The 30sec gained still leaves Quintana with a huge task on today’s final Alpine stage, but significantly it was the first time he managed to take time off Froome during the Tour.
More importantly, perhaps, Froome’s Sky teammates cracked early on, showing signs of weakness in the Briton’s formerly impregnable armour.
Alejandro Valverde remains third overall at 5min 25sec back, but Nibali is now only 1min 19sec off a podium finish.
“It was a massive day,” Froome said. “From the word go the racing was on. All in all it was a good day to be able to tick it off with one day of racing left. Quintana put in a big attack and I opted to limit my losses and keep a bit of energy.”
Of his mechanical stop, he added: “I felt as if my back wheel locked up – some tar or a stone was in between my brake calipers and back wheel.
“Unfortunately, that was the moment Nibali moved – he did see what I was doing. You don’t do that to the race leader, it is not sportsmanlike.
“Tomorrow will be full on. I’m looking forward to the Alpe d’Huez. It would be a dream to win there, but I have to keep up with a little Colombian first.”
Nibali said he was speaking to a teammate, not looking back at Froome, and that he always had planned to attack on that climb.
Froome’s teammate Geraint Thomas came in 22mins behind Nibali. Thomas said: “I was empty today. lt was always going to happen. I was hoping it would come Monday. Sometimes you’ret the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. I was a cheap nail today. When you have nothing in the legs there’s not a lot you can do.”
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