CHAMROUSSE, France — If Vincenzo Nibali was looking happier Friday after the Tour de France rode into the Alps, here’s why: His top rival fell out of contention, he gained nearly a minute on his next-biggest challenger and, oh yeah, he won Stage 13.
On a sunbaked and melting Alpine road, the 29-year-old Italian cemented his control of cycling’s greatest race with a victory that was an afterthought to gaining time on the other title contenders.
Team Sky’s Richie Porte, who began the day in second, saw his title hopes all but vanish after he lost about 9 minutes to Nibali on the last climb along the grueling 122-mile trek from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse ski station.
Ever cautious, calm and understated after his stage win, Nibali noted that three big Alpine climbs still await today and other punishing ascents are on tap in the Pyrenees next week.
“For the coming days, I only know that I have to remain quiet,” he said.
But in the winner’s circle, where he collected the yellow jersey for the 11th time this year, Nibali perhaps let slip a bit more emotion — knowing that a first Tour victory for an Italian since Marco Pantani in 1998 just got a little closer.
“I expect more attacks tomorrow in another very hard stage and next week,” Nibali said. “My advantage over Porte is good now. He’s the rider I feared the most in the closing time trial.”
If Nibali’s mountain dominance keeps up — on Monday, he won the only other high-mountain stage so far — the 33-mile time-trial in Stage 20 from Bergerac to Perigueux is the only real challenge left in his way.
The unexpected has gone Nibali’s way. He surprised himself by winning an up-and-down Stage 2 stage in the hills and dales of Yorkshire to capture his first Tour yellow jersey. He mastered cobblestone treachery in Stage 5, when 2012 Tour champ Chris Froome crashed out. And then, two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador went out five stages later after a downhill crash fractured his tibia.
This 101st Tour could become the third straight in which the winner locked up victory before the halfway point. Last year, Froome was in yellow from the eighth stage onward. In 2012, Bradley Wiggins had the shirt for good after Stage 7.
Nibali took it in Stage 2, lost it in Stage 9, and regained it a day later. He’s hoping to take it home after a largely ceremonial ride on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 27.
A comeback by a rival would be exceptional by recent standards. After the 13th stage last year, Froome had three other riders within minutes. In 2012, Wiggins had two. After Friday’s ride, no one is within three minutes of Nibali.
The first of two days in the snow-capped Alps lived up to its billing as the daunting final climb of 12 miles with an average 7.3 percent gradient shook up the overall standings.
The ride was hot — black tar on the recently resurfaced road to Chamrousse melted — and crowds lined the route.
As riders embarked on the final climb, the pack was mostly together. But when it hit the steepest part, Porte struggled and dropped off, with Nibali briefly turning his head to look. Alejandro Valverde of Spain attacked a short while later, but Nibali and the others reeled him in.
Nibali said he felt “better and better” as he climbed, despite the heat that topped 85 degrees. When the Italian saw “Richie Porte in trouble,” he turned his attention to gaining time on Valverde, he said.
After two riders raced ahead, Nibali struck — jumping out of his saddle, and pedaling while standing in the upright riding position known in French as “la danseuse” or the dancer. He overtook them, and went on to win.
Porte’s troubles meant others climbed in the standings: Valverde took over second, France’s Romain Bardet moved up to third, with countryman Thibaut Pinot fourth, and American Tejay van Garderen fifth.
Some of his rivals seem to be accepting that Nibali will win.
“Vincenzo is the strongest rider in the race, but after him, there is a place to take,” Bardet said.