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How can Nibali win the Tour?

At 2:23 back, the Shark of Messina still has a shot at yellow, but needs a lot of luck to go his way in the Pyrenees

PAU, France (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) did it once already; he won a grand tour in the Vuelta a España two years ago, and he wants to do it again, this time at the Tour de France. As the only rival to Sky still sitting within three minutes in the overall standings, Nibali is almost certainly the only man left in position to challenge the yellow jersey. But how?

Sky has been so strong over the race’s first two weeks. Even if Bradley Wiggins did crack, Chris Froome is waiting in the wings. Froome trails Wiggins by 2:05 and leads Nibali by 18 seconds. All the pair needs to do is survive the two mountain stages after Tuesday’s rest day and they are almost certain to take the first two podium spots in Paris. After the Bagnères-de-Luchon and Peyragudes stages Wednesday and Thursday, the only tricky stage is the long time trial to Chartres, a discipline that suits the British duo.

Nibali, who is nicknamed “the Shark,” must be wondering how he is going to eat away at his rivals.

“I’d definitely change rhythm. I’d put Wiggins into trouble,” Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team manager, Bjarne Riis told VeloNews. “If I was Froome and wanted to win the Tour, I’d do the same thing! Wiggins’ weak point is that he can’t change rhythm.”

Wednesday’s leg is a monster. It covers the Col d’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspine and Peyresourde before a downhill run to Bagnères-de-Luchon. The next day climbs the Port de Balès, where Andy Schleck’s chain dropped two years ago, and then the Peyresourde from the opposite side as the day before and the final kick to Peyragudes on a new, steep finishing section.

The two days in the Pyrénées this week are tough and suit the Shark well, but to erase more than two minutes, Nibali will have to take advantage of any luck that comes his way.

“They need to both flat five to six times in one day!” Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) told VeloNews with a laugh.

“Maybe he’ll see a moment when both the team and Wiggins are in trouble, then create an opportunity.”

Jonathan Vaughters is without a horse in the GC race after the “Metz Massacre” sent Garmin-Sharp’s Giro d’Italia champion, Ryder Hesjedal home in the race’s first week. In Italy in May, Hesjedal wore down the other favorites and took advantage in spots like stage 14’s Cervinia finish to gain time.

“Imagine all the pressure Wiggins is under and Sky is under; they had to ride on the front so much,” Vaughters told VeloNews.

“(Nibali’s) got to be patient and just hope that they hit a bad patch and be ready to take advantage of that opportunity. Clearly, Wednesday… he’s a better descender. He can take 30 seconds or 45, maybe even a minute, but not two and three minutes, that’s tough.”

Astana’s Giuseppe Martinelli has guided many riders to grand tour wins, including Marco Pantani and Damiano Cunego. He said Wednesday, with its four high passes, is D-Day.

“I won’t say that the Tour ends Wednesday, but it’s the most important stage. In my opinion, there won’t be big damage Thursday, unless someone starts the day already dead,” Martinelli said.

“He needs to create a masterpiece, maybe attacking on the downhill as he knows how to do well. It’s hard, though, you need more than to work; you need to already have one of the two suffering. With the Aubisque, Tourmalet, etc. He could try to attack already on the Tourmalet. It’s a very hard descent, so if he’s attacking two or three kilometres from the top…”

Nibali attacked twice on La Toussuire Thursday. He put an already suffering Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) into further pain and forced him to lose more than a minute. For one moment, he also looked to shake Sky. Thursday’s summit finish at Peyragudes comes atop the 15.4km climb that averages 5.1 percent, with an early section on the final ramp approaching 10 percent. A 2.5km descent from the summit of the Peyresourde leads into the final four kilometers. The finale is built for Nibali, but the popular opinion in the south of France is that Wednesday is the day.

Liquigas is keeping quiet regarding its next move.

“We have ideas, we’re talking about them,” Liquigas director, Stefano Zanatta said. “If he can continue with his form and find them on an off day then it’s possible.”