Nibali set for Tour de France glory
Vincenzo Nibali celebrates his leader's yellow jersey on the podium at the end of the Tour de France 20th stage in Perigeux, western France, on July 26, 2014 - by Eric Feferberg
The 29-year-old Italian all but secured his first Tour title on Saturday with an impressive fourth-placed finish in the 54km individual timetrial from Bergerac to Perigueux.
Barring a bad crash or some unforseen disaster, Nibali will be crowned Tour champion when he arrives at the Champs Elysees on Sunday evening.
And after three weeks of riding at the front of the peloton in his race leader's yellow jersey, for once the Sicilian will be able to take a back seat and let the sprinters have their day.
Since the first week of the race, chances for the sprinters to shine have been few and far between and German Marcel Kittel, winner of three of the first four stages in bunch sprints, has been inconspicuous since.
The only television shots of him have been as the burly Giant-Shimano rider slowly lost contact with the back of the peloton on climbs.
Yet he will come into the 136km dash from Evry to Paris as the favourite to add to his three victories from earlier in the Tour.
Although he is far from the kind of dead-cert he might have been.
Since that first week, his main sprint rival, German Andre Greipel, has won one sprint while Norway's Alexander Kristoff has come home first on two occasions.
In the case of Kristoff it was at the end of stages with a few lumps in the run-in that shed some of the heftier sprinters such as Kittel out the back.
But the German will surely be there on the flat Champs Elysees, where he won last year.
In fact if he wins again in Paris he will match, exactly, his achievement from last year in which he won four stages and held the yellow jersey for a day.
The sprinters have been taking to social media such as Twitter to express their delight at having another day in the sun after the trials and tribulations of the Alps, Pyrenees and Saturday's timetrial.
"Time trial done, massage done, shaved the legs, suitcase packed - looks like I'm ready for Paris! #onemoresprint," wrote an upbeat Kittel, who added a picture of the view from his hotel just outside Bergerac.
"Our last hotel is also my fav: Château les Merles. Awesome location & very charming. Felt almost like holiday... ;)"
Greipel was thankful that Saturday's winner Tony Martin, the three-time world timetrial champion, had not gone so fast that some of the other riders finished outside the time limit cut off point.
Martin, 29, won the race against the clock by 1min 39 from Dutch timetrial champion Tom Dumoulin and even Nibali finished almost two minutes behind.
"Thanks @tonymartin85 for going not faster otherwise some of us could go to Paris already 2day.Congrats you machine!!!!" said Greipel after Saturday's race.
- French pride -
Meanwhile the host nation are gearing up to welcome their first podium finishers since Richard Virenque in 1997.
In fact, with Jean-Christophe Peraud due to finish second and Thibaut Pinot third, it is the first time since 1984 when Laurent Fignon beat the great Bernanrd Hinault into second that two Frenchmen will have stood on the podium together.
L'Equipe newspaper said the two home heroes made the "hair stand up on the back of the neck" and dedicated it's front page to Peraud and Pinot.
But no matter how happy the home nation will be on the Champs Elysees, the day will belong to Nibali, who described this achievement as eclipsing his Vuelta a Espana win in 2010 and his Giro d'Italia success last year.
"What makes the Tour so much bigger is the international attention it demands. It's different, it's bigger, it's more beautiful," he said.
"The level of competition is also higher than the others, although I had great rivals in both the Giro and the Vuelta."