Stage 20: Bergerac to Périgueux, 54km individual time-trial.
The man expected to win, did win and, thanks to his position in the general classification, had completed the job long before the battle that would garner all the attention got under way: The fight for the final podium positions. Tony Martin could well have gone back to his hotel, had a shower, a bite to eat and returned to the podium such was the certainty of his ride that nobody to come after would beat it, but instead he was made to sit beside the finishing line, watching various riders come up to the line and fall well short of his mark.
As a result however he got to enjoy the exciting climax to this years tour podium. Coming in, Vincenzo Nibali held such a lead that nothing short of a disaster would have put his Tour into jeopardy, but rather than play it safe and coast around, Nibali still went out hard, determined to honour the yellow jersey. The effort put him into fourth for the stage and resulted in him taking yet further time from those around him in the overall standings.
Nibali will ride into Paris with a 7minute, 52 second lead over the nearest man, the biggest winning margin in the Tour since Jan Ullrich beat Richard Virenque in 1997 by 9 minutes, 9 seconds. Thinking back to that day who would have though it would be the last (and only) time the then 23 year old Jan Ullrich would win the Tour de France and also the last time a Frenchman would stand on the podium...until now.
At least one podium spot was all but guaranteed between second place Thibaut Pinot and third place Jean-Christophe Péraud with Spaniard Aljeandro Valverde the only one who could potentially strip one place away from them, but it became evident early that Valverde wasn't going to be doing that. Valverde was the slowest of the top six and it soon became a battle between Pinot and Péraud to sort out which order they would stand on the podium. Pinot came in with a 13 second lead over his fellow countryman, but Péraud stormed off the starting ramp and had overturned the entire defect plus a further 12 seconds by the first time check at 19 kilometres.
Indeed, Péraud was the fastest of the main contenders at the first check taking 5 seconds from Tejay Van Garderen and 6 seconds from Nibali, but a bike change slowed his progress and he himself began to lose ground on that pair as the course wore on. By the second check Péraud was now well behind Nibali and Van Garderen and 24 seconds up on Pinot who had matched Péraud for pace, shy a single second.
By the third check Péraud had studied himself and put 36 seconds into Pinot's time and it was clear the elder statesman of the pair at 37 years of age would not only live out his dream by finishing on the podium but would do so in second place. He hit the line with the seventh best time on the day, 45 seconds better than the young Pinot.
Péraud broke down crying after the finish and Pinot will be satisfied with a top three. The French waited 17 years for someone to do this and two have come along at once. It's the first time two Frenchmen have finished on the podium since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault in 1984.
It also had the potential to be the first time three Frenchmen finished in the top five since Charly Mottet, Luc Leblanc and Fignon in the 1991, but Romain Bardet struggled almost as badly as Valverde and, like his teammate, was forced to make a bike change. Unlike Péraud however, Bardet's change cost him: Van Garderen, who required 2'07" coming into the stage, put 2'09" into the youngster and took fifth place by a mere 2 seconds. It was like a miniature version of Fignon vs. LeMond all over again...the Frenchman losing out right on the final stretch to the American, albeit for minor placings this time.
And so Tony Martin could finally move away from the waiting area and onto the podium and head back to his hotel for a long overdue lie down. His ride was on another level to the rest. He beat Tom Dumoulin by 1 minute, 39 seconds, Jan Barta by 1'47" and was two seconds shy of putting two minutes into the yellow jersey. Still, Nibali won't mind; he proved himself the strongest over the three weeks as a whole and further illustrated that against his rivals today. He will coast into Paris tomorrow to win the Tour de France.
1. Martin (OPQ) in 1h6'21"
2. Dumoulin (GIA) +1'39"
3. Barta (TNE) +1'47"
4. Nibali (AST) +1'58"
5. Konig (TNE) +2'02"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +2'08"
7. Péraud (ALM) +2'27"
12. Pinot (FDJ) +3'12"
26. Bardet (ALM) +4'17"
28. Valverde (MOV) +4'28"
1. Nibali (AST) in 86h37'52"
2. Péraud (ALM) +7'52"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +8'24"
4. Valverde (MOV) +9'55"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +11'44"
6. Bardet (ALM) +11'46"