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Shark Nibali goes in for the kill in final mountain stage

By Julien Pretot

HAUTACAM France (Reuters) - Nicknamed the 'Shark of Messina', Vincenzo Nibali once again showed his teeth to stamp his authority on the Tour de France and is now cruising towards his maiden title in the race.

The Italian became the first rider since the great Eddy Merckx in 1974 to win four stages (time trials excluded) in the same Tour by claiming the 18th stage at the top of the iconic Hautacam, draped in eerie fog.

Nibali powered away some 11 kilometers from the top of the 13.6-km ascent and never looked back to extend his overall lead to 7 minutes 10 seconds over France's Thibaut Pinot.

The Astana rider, who still looks fresh after almost three weeks of racing, is expected to extend his lead further in Saturday's 54-km time trial between Bergerac and Perigueux.

Should that happen, his winning margin could be the biggest since Laurent Fignon beat fellow Frenchman Bernard Hinault in 1984 by 10:32.

His current lead, he says, has been patiently built over the course of the race.

"I did not just do a great coup, I gained a few seconds here, a few seconds there," he told a news conference.

Nibali gained time on the cobbled stage to Arenberg in the first week and always finished ahead of his rivals in the mountains.

On Thursday, none of his nearest competitors tried to follow him as they knew they were only fighting for second.

Tour leaders often gift stages to others or even rivals if it does not threaten their stranglehold on the yellow jersey.

There have been a few exceptions. Belgian Merckx, for instance, was not one to just surrender stage wins.

Likewise Nibali was not in a giving mood on Thursday.

"I wanted to win this stage for my team mates after all the work they had done," the Italian explained.

Spaniard Mikel Nieve was alone in front when Nibali jumped away from a group of the leading riders to follow Chris Horner's acceleration.

"In the final climb I went early but it's because Horner accelerated, I did not want to give up the stage win," said Nibali, who won the 2010 Vuelta and last year's Giro d'Italia.

"I owed it to my team mates."

The fact that it was Horner was also a factor.

"Yes, there is a rivalry between us," said Nibali, who lost out in the 2013 Vuelta to the American veteran.

His ride drew comparisons with the now disgraced Lance Armstrong, who was nicknamed 'the boss' in the peloton for his merciless and controlling behavior.

Nibali, who is very careful not to make enemies in the peloton, dismissed the comparison, saying: "It's normal we wanted to control the race.

"It was our duty (because we have the yellow jersey). The comparison is not relevant."

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)

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