Tour "made to measure" for Nibali
7:16pm Saturday 26th July 2014 in © Press Association 2014
Vincenzo Nibali believes the 101st Tour de France suited him perfectly.
Nibali (Astana), barring an astonishing and unprecedented turn of events, will win the 101st Tour's yellow jersey on Sunday evening after taking a lead of seven minutes 52 seconds to Paris, where the final stage is traditionally a procession, before being contested by the sprinters on the Champs-Elysees.
The Italian, winner of the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and 2013 Giro d'Italia, will become the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours, after Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Alberto Contador.
By the time he crosses the finish line in Paris, Nibali will have worn the fabled maillot jaune for 18 of the Tour's 21 race days, having first taken the race lead on day two in Sheffield with his first of four stage victories.
"The Tour de France this year was a great race, very different from the other Tours we've had," said Nibali, who relinquished the lead for one day before reclaiming it on stage 10.
"It was almost made to measure for me. Quite difficult from the outset."
Who knows how Nibali would have fared had misfortune and injury not struck 2013 winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) and two-time champion Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), both of whom abandoned with broken bones.
But there is no doubt Nibali has been the race's dominant rider, winning across four mountain ranges.
He is already looking towards the 2015 Tour, with Froome, Contador and 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) likely to start in Utrecht.
Nibali, third behind Sir Bradley Wiggins and Froome in the 2012 Tour, said: "Yes, it will be a real battle. I'm really looking forward to the race next year."
Other contenders could come from the host nation as two Frenchmen reached the podium for the first time in 30 years.
As world time-trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) won the 54-kilometre 20th stage from Bergerac to Perigueux in one hour 06 minutes 21 seconds, Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) overcame a puncture to finish second ahead of third-placed Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Pinot, who is 24, began the day in second, 13 seconds ahead of the 37-year-old Peraud and 15 ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
The Spaniard never challenged for a podium spot as Peraud and Pinot ensured there would be two Frenchmen in the Tour's top three for the first time since 1984, when Laurent Fignon won ahead of Hinault.
Peraud said: "It's an enormous satisfaction. The withdrawals of Froome and Contador opened a range of possibilities and I started dreaming about this second place.
"I have a feeling of mission accomplished and a lot of joy today."
Pinot, who finishes as the best young rider, said: "I find it hard to realise that I'm on the final podium of the Tour de France."
Welshman Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) - the one remaining Briton after four starters in Leeds on July 5 - was 34th on the stage, 5:01 behind Martin to sit 59:29 behind Nibali in 22nd overall, his best finish in five Tour starts.
Nibali was fourth on the day in 1:08:19 and - as the first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998 - will savour Sunday's 137.5km stage from Evry to the Champs-Elysees.
Inevitably, given the Tour's history, Nibali was asked if his performance can be trusted.
The margin of victory was greater than all of those secured by Lance Armstrong, whose seven wins have been wiped from the record books following his doping conviction.
Nibali, whose Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov has a tainted past, spoke of the challenges of his Sicilian upbringing and insisted he was happy with the improved anti-doping methods in the sport.
"Well it's a great pleasure for me to talk to you about all the sacrifices I've made, where I've come from, where I am now," he said.
"I'm very proud of what I've accomplished. Without the biological passport and the targeted controls, I might not be here."
When the peloton reaches Paris on Sunday ahead of Nibali's coronation, Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) will be chasing a second successive Tour-concluding win.
The German ended Mark Cavendish's streak of four successive wins in Paris in 2013.
Cavendish, a 25-time stage winner, crashed out on stage one in Harrogate and required shoulder surgery, but his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team's Tour ends on a high after Martin's success.
Martin, who also won stage nine, lived up to his billing as favourite on the day, once again proving he is peerless against the clock.
"A lot of guys didn't start today from the real contenders, like Wiggins, like (Fabian) Cancellara," Martin said.
"I still have the power after three weeks. I think today it would be hard for anybody to fight me."