BERGERAC, France — Ramunas Navardauskas gave Lithuania and his American team a stage victory Friday at the Tour de France. Now cycling’s great showcase is reduced to this – the race for second place behind Vincenzo Nibali.
The Italian, who has all but won the yellow jersey, cruised to the finish in Stage 19 in the rain-splattered pack behind the Lithuanian’s breakaway. Only a mishap of the highest order during Saturday’s time trial would deny Nibali victory in Paris on Sunday.
With cool and methodical racing, Nibali has bit by bit built a lead of more than seven minutes on his closest rivals, and much more against many others. Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud, and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde are vying for second and third.
The showdown comes down to Saturday’s 33.5-mile race against the clock from Bergerac to Perigueux. Relatively long by Tour standards, the time trial will require riders to maintain a steady rhythm and face the wind or rain on their own without the protection of the pack.
Only 15 seconds separate the three riders behind Nibali. Pinot by 7 minutes, 10 seconds. Peraud is 7:23 back, with Valverde two seconds slower. Pinot is considered the least skilled among the three in time trials.
“Tomorrow is the most important stage of the Tour,” Pinot said. “I’ll have to be strong.”
Next is France’s Romain Bardet, a teammate of Peraud’s on the AG2R La Mondiale team. But he’s more than two minutes behind Valverde and not considered strong in time trials. American Tejay van Garderen is regarded as strong, but he’s another two minutes slower in sixth place – and erasing his four-minute deficit to join the podium contenders would be tough.
In reverse order of the standings, riders on Saturday will set off one by one down the starter’s ramp at several-minute intervals over more than six hours. Cheng Ji of Giant-Shimano, the first rider from China in the race, will go first. Nibali goes last.
The not-quite flat and long course will require riders to muster all the strength they have left in legs that have suffered, strained and burned over three weeks – a trek that began in the hills and dales of Yorkshire, England, covered coarse cobblestones and ascended several mountain peaks.