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Barring accident, first place in the Tour de France has already been settled prior to the stage 20 time trial. Vincenzo Nibali has more than seven minutes over his rivals and looks certain to become the first Italian victor in 16 years in Paris.
He took an early advantage on stage two and has stomped on his rivals in the mountain stages, eking out an unbeatable lead with two stages to go. There is no longer any suspense in the battle for yellow.
The podium, though, is another matter.
In the tussle for second and third, three riders are divided by a mere quarter of a minute. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are 7 minutes 10 seconds, 7 minutes 23 and 7 minutes 25 behind Nibali respectively, and each have their eyes set firmly on the second step in Paris.
Two others, Romain Bardet (Ag2r la Mondiale) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) are almost certainly too far back to aim for the runner-up slot, but are locked in their own battle for fifth overall.
Bardet is 9 minutes 27 seconds behind Nibali; van Garderen is 2 minutes 7 seconds further back, but is the stronger time trialist. He knows he might have been battling for second overall had he not lost serious time with a bad day in the Pyrenees. Making a statement in the time trial is a big objective for him.
Pinot is tipped by some as the most likely to take second overall. He’s looked good in the mountains and appears to be finishing the Tour strongly. He’s fired up to try to take France’s best overall Tour de France finish since Richard Virenque in 1997.
“I like time trialing so I’ll give it all, hoping that I won’t have a bad day,” the Tour’s Maillot Blanc said. “Am I tired? Out of 10, I must be at 12. But I don’t have to be scared. The two riders who will be on the podium with Nibali will be the strongest.”
Peraud crashed in last year’s final time trial and was forced to quit the Tour. He is determined to have a more successful performance this time round. “We’re going to check it in a car to know what to expect. And then rest. It won’t be like last year,” he promised.
His bigger concern is likely to be Valverde, a rider who has mixed performances against the clock but who has put in some strong rides in the past.
The former Vuelta a España winner knows what it is like to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour; he’s done that five times in the Vuelta and wants to experience the sensation again.
“Tomorrow is a very important day for me,” he said after Friday’s stage. “I’m looking for the second place as I’m only a few seconds behind Peraud and Pinot. It’s going to be a great fight. I think Peraud is a better specialist than Pinot. We’ll see.
“With more than 50 km, its’ a long and demanding time trial. I’m confident and I hope it’s going to work out.”
Bardet has had a strong Tour and previously wore the white jersey as best young rider. He crashed inside the final three kilometres on Friday’s stage but is relatively uninjured. He’s psyched for the stage 20 time trial and will do what he can to fend off van Garderen.
He and Peraud planned to check out the time trial course on Friday evening in order to know exactly what to expect.
“Of course I believe in my chances,” he said after stage 19, shrugging off his crash. “I’m very motivated. I’m going to do it as fast as I can and we’ll draw conclusions tomorrow evening. The main thing will be to have given it my all once the line is crossed in Perigueux.”
Van Garderen has arguably the best background of the five riders against the clock, and believes that the key to a strong ride is judging things correctly. “Pacing – you can’t go out too hard, you can’t go out too easy,” he said. “Pacing is everything.”
He is more than four minutes off the riders in second, third and fourth overall, but will try to do the best possible time trial and see where he ends up.
That gap would normally be too much to overcome but, with the time trial being 54 kilometres, he knows that a bad day or a mishap by Pinot, Peraud or Valverde could give him the chance he needs to improve on his fifth overall in 2012.