Grenoble, France – Vincenzo Nibali's Tour de France rivals now know who the “boss” is according to the Italian's Astana team manager, Alexander Vinokourov.
Nibali won his third stage of the Tour in the Alps on Friday, first riding away from his main rivals Alejandro Valverde and Thibaut Pinot before also leaving breakaway pair Rafal Majka and Leopold Konig in his irrepressible wake.
With Saturday's second Alpine stage looking even tougher than Friday's, as the 177km route from Grenoble to Risoul takes in two first category climbs and the uncategorised Col d'Izoard Ä at 2,360m the highest point of this year's race Ä Vinokourov believes Nibali has sent out a message to his rivals.
“He showed he is the boss in the Tour. (Friday) they all understood and they let him do it,” said the Kazakh, who nonetheless checked his own euphoria.
“You win the Tour in Paris. It's true we've taken a great step towards the final victory, we've got a team that's working well, but there are still some tough days to come.”
Nibali's management of the Tour so far, not to mention the injury withdrawals of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, have created a feeling that the rest are riding for second place.
And that at least promises to be a thrilling battle with Spanish veteran Valverde, young Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, as well as American Tejay Van Garderen all in the fight.
One rider who will no longer be in that battle for a podium is Australian Richie Porte, who suffered terribly in the searing heat of Friday, where temperatures reached 35 degrees Celsius, and came home almost nine minutes behind Nibali to drop from second to 16th overall at more than 11 minutes.
Porte wasn't giving up all hope, though.
“I don't think I dealt with the heat very well. It's one of those things. It's a massive shame but we'll see what happens (Saturday),” said Porte.
“I feel more for my team-mates who have been brilliant for me every day. If it happens to me it can happen to other guys too. We'll just keep on pushing.”
The doom and gloom around the Team Sky camp, with Froome at home in Monaco nursing a broken hand and wrist and Porte now out of the reckoning, contrasted sharply with the euphoria in the host nation.
Bardet is 23 and Pinot 24 and the pair sit third and fourth overall at 4:24 and 4:40 respectively.
They also showed on Friday that they could mix it with everyone except Nibali and have pushed up expectations that a home rider can climb onto the final podium in Paris.
FdJ's Pinot has had to reassess his own aims day by day as he's steadily climbed the standings.
“There have been three uphill finishes and I've been in the top five each time. That shows I'm there and I'm consistent,” said Pinot.
“I'm right in the top 10 so now I have to fight for a top five place and once we're out of the Alps we'll see about the podium,” he added, having previously claimed his main aim was to win a stage.
AG2R's Bardet said the long, regular nature of Friday's final climb to Chamrousse didn't suit him but when he comes across others more in tune with his strengths, such as Saturday's stage, he believes he'll be able to capitalise.
“I mostly like climbs where there are brutal changes in steepness and rhythm,” he said.
“This was too regular but it's the Tour de France and you have to be present when you arrive in altitude.
“I'll try things, it's the Tour de France and you need to be consistent to do well, you have to hang on and not let go.
“(Saturday's) stage motivates me a lot with the Izoard and then Risoul, which I know very well.
“It's a big effort with the heat but it's difficult for everyone.” – Sapa-AFP