By Julien Pretot
Vincenzo Nibali became the first Italian to win the Tour de France since the late Marco Pantani on Sunday, dominating his rivals on all terrains as his main rivals crashed out of a superb three-week race.
While Italy celebrated its seventh Tour winner, a jubilant France hailed its first double podium finish in 30 years as veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud and youngster Thibaut Pinot took second and third respectively.
“We are very happy, it’s a beautiful victory. Congratulations to the whole team,” said Nibali’s Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov.
Nibali beat Peraud by 7:37 and Pinot by 8:15 to become the sixth man to win all three Grand Tours after Belgian Eddy Merckx, Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Italian Felice Gimondi and Spaniard Alberto Contador.
The Italian finished safely as the sprinters contested the embers of the three-week Tour around the Champs Elysees, emulating the 1998 feat of Pantani.
Germany’s Marcel Kittel produced a burst of speed to claim the final stage, his fourth stage win of the Tour and a repeat of his victory on the iconic Parisian landmark last year.
Nibali began the day with a near eight-minute lead and only needed to avoid a last-day crash to complete victory.
Contador, who was hoping to add to his two Tour titles, crashed out in the 10th stage, riding 15 kilometres with a broken shinbone before pulling out.
Last year’s winner Chris Froome packed his bags after a crash on the cobbles in the fifth stage, the day Nibali opened a big gap over all his main rivals with a scintillating display on the treacherous lanes of northern France.
“I was ready to take them on. And crashes are part of the race,” Nibali replied when asked if Froome and Contador’s exits would undermine his title.
Nicknamed ‘The Shark of Messina’, Nibali stayed true to his aggressive self by attacking repeatedly on the big climbs, hammering the opposition in the mountains.
While the 2012 Tour crowned a ‘rouleur’ in Wiggins and a climber the following year in Froome, this year’s race belonged to a true all-rounder.
On Sunday, he just stayed safe in the bunch during the last stage as Kittel beat Norway’s Alexander Kristoff and Lithuanian Ramunas Navardauskas.
The 137.5-km procession to Paris started from Evry in a festive atmosphere after the riders were transferred by plane from Bergerac, where all the distinctive jerseys were effectively sealed.
True to tradition, Nibali and his team-mates drank champagne while the peloton rode towards Paris at a snail’s pace.
It got competitive once the race reached Paris as the bunch geared up for the final sprint.
Peraud crashed with 43km left as he slipped on a curve leading to the Champs Elysees. But he got back onto his bike and helped by team-mates, fought his way back into the peloton.
Nibali avoided trouble on the last stage, just as he did for the past incident-packed three weeks.
He took the yellow jersey in the second stage with a late attack on the way to Sheffield, England, where the Tour was greeted with immense crowds.
The Astana rider surrendered his overall lead for just one stage to Tony Gallopin, one of several Frenchmen to impress.
Pinot, 24, claimed the white jersey for the best Under-25 rider, beating compatriot Romain Bardet, sixth overall, after cracking him in the Pyrenees.
Slovakian Peter Sagan sealed his third consecutive green jersey for the points classification although he failed to win a single stage on the Tour.
French outfit Ag2R-La Mondiale won the teams classification.
Poland’s Rafal Majka confirmed he is a top climber by taking the polka dot jersey for the mountains classification after being handed a free role by his team following Contador’s exit.
The 2014 Tour proved a failure for Team Sky as they could not pick themselves up after Froome’s abandon.
Australian Richie Porte was their plan B but he cracked in the first Alpine stage and never recovered.
“We won it twice (with Bradley Wiggins and Froome in 2012 and 2013). You must win with dignity, but also lose with dignity,” Team Sky manager David Brailsford said.