Finally cracking broad smiles after weeks of no-nonsense racing, Vincenzo Nibali confirmed he will win the Tour de France with another impressive ride in a dramatic penultimate stage on Saturday.
Nibali all but ensured he will be crowned Tour champion for the first time, thanks to winning the last mountain stage on Thursday. But a desire to leave nothing to chance, even with the biggest overall lead in 14 years, saw him push himself in the individual time trial for fourth place behind winner and German speedster Tony Martin.
In doing so, the rider they call "The Shark" padded his overall lead on Stage 20 by more than 40 seconds to nearly eight minutes.
He grabbed the yellow jersey on Stage 2 almost three weeks ago, and has worn it for all but two stages.
For days, his domination has reduced the drama to who would join him on the final podium on Sunday. The Stage 20 time trial solved that: Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot.
They will be the first Frenchman to medal in France's beloved race since Richard Virenque in 1997.
The duo did enough to leave behind an unlucky Alejandro Valverde of Spain in their three-man race for the final podium. Only 15 seconds separated them when the stage began in Bergerac, but it became more than two minutes when the time trial finished in Perigueux.
Peraud, a 37-year-old former mountain bike racer, became tearful at the finish after learning he would be the Tour runner-up: "It's beautiful," he said.
The Beijing Olympic silver medallist also teared up during a post-race news conference. "Now, I can retire," Peraud said.
Because Valverde had a bad day, Peraud, who even blew a flat and had to change bikes, losing about 20 seconds, and Pinot were able to shade him.
Also, American Tejay van Garderen climbed a spot from sixth to fifth overall by overcoming a deficit of 2 minutes, 7 seconds to Romain Bardet by two seconds. The young French rider lost key seconds after blowing a flat at the end of the stage.
The last stage is also flat, and the teams of Nibali, Peraud and Pinot will be hawking over any breakaway attempts, so it will be mainly a ceremonial ride into Paris, likely with Champagne bottles popped during the ride.
Martin, the world time trial champion, blistered the field over the 54-kilometre (34-mile) leg on Saturday.
Pedalling with his body curled up in a tight ball, with the aerodynamic rear disk wheel bearing the rainbow-colored stripes earned by the world champion, he maintained a steady pace on the flats, hugged the edge of the road on curves, and squatted down on his bike's top tube to reduce wind drag on the descents. Sweat trickled down his nose and off his chin.
'This could be my day'
Martin overtook the rider who started two minutes before him by about the 15-kilometre point. Four kilometres later, he already had a 35-second lead on the fastest man up to that point: Czech time trial champion Jan Barta. At the end, he finished 1:39 faster than Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in second, and Barta was third, eight seconds slower.
"I had a really good feeling right from the beginning that this could be my day," said Martin, who also won Stage 9 in a breakaway.
Nibali was fourth, 1:58 back, Peraud was seventh, Pinot 12th, and Valverde 28th. There was little chance of the overall standings changing, not unless Nibali, one of the world's best time-trialers, blew it.
Overall, the Italian has a lead of 7:52 over Peraud, and 8:24 over Pinot. Valverde, in fourth, was 9:55 back.
With about 20 kilometres left, Peraud popped a flat, pulled to the side of the road, and clapped gently in a gesture to his AG2R La Mondiale team to get him a new bike. Within about 20 seconds, he was riding again: The damage wasn't enough to dent his podium hopes.
But Bardet, Peraud's teammate, had a mishap with a cost. Near the end, he raised a hand to call the team car to get him another bike. The switch required a few seconds, but that was just enough to drop him to sixth overall behind BMC leader Van Garderen.