What's buzzing:

The un-Armstrong? Tour 'boss' Nibali wins Stage 18

AP - Sports
Nibali wins Stage 18, closes in on Tour victory
.

View gallery

ARGELES-GAZOST, France (AP) -- As his team hoped, Vincenzo Nibali demonstrated he's the ''boss'' of the Tour de France. Just don't compare him to the last rider to regularly bear that sobriquet at cycling's greatest race, Lance Armstrong.

In a tour de force on Thursday, Nibali blew away the peloton on a Pyrenees ascent too tough to be rated in Stage 18, all but locking up victory when the race ends in Paris in three days.

Nibali has combined racing smarts, skill at bike-handling, and powerful climbing legs to methodically piece together a lead of more than seven minutes, gaining seconds ''here and there,'' as he put it after his fourth stage win.

That margin, if it holds, would be the second largest in 25 years: Jan Ullrich won by more than nine minutes in 1997. Armstrong won five of his seven titles from 1999 to 2005 by more than six minutes, but those victories were stripped after he was exposed as a doping cheat.

The last Italian to win the Tour was ''The Pirate,'' Marco Pantani, in 1998. Nibali too knows about nicknames.

His family calls him Enzino. An attacking rider, he's been known as the ''Shark of the Straits'' in reference to the Strait of Messina off Sicily. One from his boyhood re-emerged on Thursday after the win at Hautacam resort: ''Flea of the Pyrenees'' - a nod to its first bearer, Vincent Treuba of Spain, decades ago.

Alexandre Vinokourov, general manager of Nibali's Astana team, said the Kazakh squad wanted the rider to show he deserved another. ''We said, 'we need to show that there's a boss,''' Vinokourov said on French TV, recalling the team's game plan before Thursday's stage. He said the stage victory was ''not by chance.''

But Nibali wasn't impressed by the comparisons with the disgraced Armstrong.

''I came to the Tour with a good preparation and a good team. But I'm not a boss like Lance Armstrong was,'' he said through a translator. ''Let's leave the past behind us. I'm very clear about myself.''

As a ''flag-bearer of anti-doping,'' he notes his career ascension has been gradual. He won the 2010 Spanish Vuelta and the 2013 Giro d'Italia, putting him on track to become only the sixth rider ever to win all three Grand Tours.

The Italian has worn the yellow jersey for all but two days: That was last achieved by Armstrong nine years ago.

Nibali's bid was made easier after the pre-race favorites, 2013 champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador, withdrew due to crash injuries. Nibali noted he was leading them when they quit, and crashes are part of cycling.

Riders tackled the famed Tourmalet pass - the highest Pyrenean peak in this Tour - before heading to Hautacam on Thursday. Both climbs are among the toughest in professional cycling.

On the big, final climb, Nibali broke out of the peloton, chased down breakaway riders, and rode solo in front for the last eight kilometers (five miles) uphill.

The emphatic win in the 145.5-kilometer (90-mile) leg from Pau to Hautacam, where Nibali padded almost two minutes to his lead, essentially reduced the race drama to who will join him on the podium on the Champs-Elysees.

''I didn't want to lose command. My goal was to win here,'' Nibali said. ''The team worked really hard and this victory is for them.''

Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud advanced their hopes to give France its first podium finisher since 1997. They each gained just under a minute on Alejandro Valverde in the final climb, bumping the Spaniard to fourth.

Those three will battle it out for the bottom two podium spots.

Friday's stage is mostly flat and unlikely to alter the top standings. Nibali's lead is so big - 7 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of Pinot, and 7:23 on Peraud - that it would take a disaster for him to lose the lead before Sunday. Valverde is just two seconds slower than Peraud.

''Everything is possible,'' Valverde said. ''Before, I was ahead, now I'm behind, but it's very tight. I'm pretty happy.''

View Comments (16)
  • Wycombe woes have spurred Aston Villa on, says goalkeeper Bunn

    Wycombe woes have spurred Aston Villa on, says goalkeeper Bunn

    (Reuters) - The aftermath of Aston Villa's 1-1 FA Cup draw at Wycombe Wanderers on Jan. 9, when supporters' frustrations boiled over at the team's failure to see off the fourth-tier side, has spurred it on in recent weeks, goalkeeper Mark Bunn said. … More »

    Reuters - 15 minutes ago
  • West Ham's Lanzini and Sakho close to return

    West Ham's Lanzini and Sakho close to return

    Long-term injury absentees Manuel Lanzini and Diafra Sakho are closing in on a return to action for West Ham United, the Premier League club said on Thursday. Currently sixth in the league table, the club, however, will miss Cheikhou Kouyate in … More »

    Reuters - 36 minutes ago
  • Serie A leadership, winning runs at stake in Juve-Napoli clash

    Serie A leadership, winning runs at stake in Juve-Napoli clash

    It is hard to believe that when they met for the first time this season, Napoli were 12th in Serie A and Juventus 13th with only a win apiece in their first five matches. Leaders Napoli, aiming to win their first Serie A title since the Diego … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 3 minutes ago
  • Ibrahimovic double helps PSG sink Lyon in Cup

    Ibrahimovic double helps PSG sink Lyon in Cup

    PARIS (Reuters) - Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice in four second-half minutes as Paris St Germain breezed into the French Cup quarter-finals with a 3-0 home victory over Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday. After a goalless first half at the Parc des … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 37 minutes ago
  • Barca salvage 1-1 King's Cup draw against improved Valencia

    Barca salvage 1-1 King's Cup draw against improved Valencia

    (Reuters) - Cameroonian teenager Wilfrid Kaptoum scored a late equaliser to give Barcelona a 1-1 draw at Valencia that wrapped up an 8-1 aggregate success in their King's Cup semi-final on Wednesday. The second-leg result, which denied home coach … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 44 minutes ago