Vincenzo Nibali produced another ruthless display of dominance in the mountains to win solo on stage 18 of the Tour de France and put one hand on overall victory.
The Italian surged away from his general classification rivals with just over 10km of the climb to the summit finish at Hautacam remaining and then moved into a solo lead after catching and passing breakaway rider Mikel Nieve with 8km to go.
He eventually crossed the line 1min 10sec ahead of second-placed Thibaut Pinot and 1min 12sec in front of third-placed Majka to claim his fourth stage victory of the race.
The result stretched his overall lead to 7min 10sec, and with just two sprint stages either side of Saturday’s individual time trial remaining, it appears only a catastrophe can now deny him overall victory and the honour of becoming only the sixth rider in history to win all three Grand Tours.
His plight was helped by the fact that Alejandro Valverde, who had been second overall, wilted badly on the final climb, losing 1min 59sec to Nibali and more than a minute to the riders battling him for the runner-up spot on the podium in Paris.
Tight fight for second
The Spaniard has consequently fallen to fourth overall, but incredibly, he is only 15 seconds behind second-placed Pinot and two seconds adrift of third-placed Jean-Christophe Peraud.
Nibali said: “Today wasn’t for the rankings; I just wanted another stage win. The team have worked so hard for me throughout these three weeks. To win a stage in the Pyrenees is very important, and it’s for the whole team.”
Stage 18 was the final mountainous day of the race, taking in the legendary Col du Tourmalet before ending on the 13.6km, hors-categorie climb to Hautacam.
A 20-man breakaway full of riders eyeing stage victory moved clear early, but Nieve (Team Sky) and Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale) then pushed on as a duo at the bottom of the Tourmalet and subsequently took a lead of 1min 30sec over a chasing group of six on to final climb.
Nieve attacked and dropped Kadri to move into a lone lead with 12km to go, but when the fireworks began behind him in the peloton, the Basque climber stood little chance of holding on.
Majka set to win polka dot jersey
Nibali (Astana) was the only main to follow an initial attack from Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) just under 11km out, but the yellow jersey was not content to have company and blew the veteran American away with an attack of his own around 1km later.
He quickly opened up a lead of around 50 seconds on a group containing Pinot, Valverde and Peraud, but he then extended that in the final 2km to seal a comfortable victory and ensure he has now won summit finishes in all three of the mountain ranges this year’s Tour has visited.
Back down the road, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) set off in lone pursuit of Nibali, but it was an attack from Pinot (FDJ) 6km out that caused a more serious split in the chase group and led to Valverde (Movistar) being dropped.
Pinot outpsprinted Majka into second, but third place was enough to ensure the 24-year-old Pole will win this year’s mountains classification, as long as he safely gets to Paris on Sunday. Peter Sagan (Cannondale), meanwhile, will now win the points classification if he does likewise.
Stage 18 result
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana, 4:04:17
2 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ, +1:10
3 Rafał Majka (Pol) Tinkoff-Saxo, +1:12
4 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +1:15
5 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC, st
6 Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +1:53
7 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin, +1:57
8 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp – Endura, st
9 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Trek Factory Racing, +1:59
10 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team, st
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana, 80:45:45
2 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ, +7:10
3 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +7:23
4 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, +7:25
5 Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +9:27
6 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC, +11:34
7 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin, +13:56
8 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Belkin, +14:15
9 Leopold Konig (Cze) NetApp-Endura, +14:37
10 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Trek Factory Racing, +16:25