Tour de France leader Bradley Wiggins said he almost cried as he allowed himself for the first time to contemplate victory when his closest rival, Vincenzo Nibali, faltered on the last mountain stage.
Spain’s Alejandro Valverde won yesterday’s 143.5-kilometer (89-mile) stage in the Pyrenees to the Peyragudes ski resort. Wiggins was third, just behind Team Sky teammate Chris Froome. Together, they surged up the last climb and out of reach of Nibali, who finished 18 seconds back.
Wiggins, who beat Nibali by more than two minutes to win an earlier time trial, would become the first British winner of the race that started in 1903.
“It was the first time in the whole of the race that I thought I’d won the Tour,” Wiggins told reporters. “There were almost tears in my eyes.”
Wiggins has a 2-minute, 5-second lead over Froome in the overall classification. Froome hasn’t challenged the advantage of his fellow Briton during the race and twice slowed down for Wiggins to catch up yesterday.
Nibali, an Italian with the Liquigas team, is 2:41 behind Wiggins in third. There is a 138-mile flat stage today between Blagnac and Brive-La-Gaillarde, and a time trial tomorrow before the final ceremonial ride to Paris on July 22.
“Wiggins was very strong,” Nibali said as he rested his arms on his bike’s handlebars after crossing the finishing line yesterday. “He will be a deserved winner.”
After a rolling first half of the ride, cyclists climbed the Port de Bales, a mountain that has an average 7.7 degree gradient, and then scaled the Col de Peyresourde and the final uphill climb to Peyragudes.
Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler was part of an early breakaway as he sought to defend his polka-dot jersey as top climber against closest rival Fredrik Kessiakoff of Astana. Voeckler crossed the first mountain pass, Col de Menthe, first and then the smaller Col des Ares.
Valverde and Movistar teammate Rui Costa led the field over the Port de Bales. Costa misjudged a turn on the descent and went into a run-off zone, leaving Valverde alone.
The Spaniard held off Froome and Wiggins to win the stage by 19 seconds.
With two miles left, Wiggins accelerated away from Nibali and fourth-place Jurgen van den Broeck of Belgium. The Briton clenched his teeth as he rode up the final incline that was shrouded in mist and crowded with thousands of fans, some of them waving British flags.
Froome followed Wiggins and then set the pace himself to gain more time on Nibali.
“We said ‘he’s nailed, he’s finished,”’ Wiggins said. “That was an incredible feeling.”