On the last of four Pyrenees ascents, Rafal Majka winked at a French TV camera and tugged playfully at a motorcycle's antenna.
Even this late in the
Nibali was even businesslike with his own prime minister, imploring him not to get too ahead of himself in celebration.
"It's true that I received a text message from Matteo Renzi, who invited me to Chigi Palace to celebrate my victory," said the cautious Sicilian of the premier's official residence. "I replied that only after winning -- if I do so -- I'll be able to say that I'll be present."
Wednesday's 77-mile trek was the shortest stage in this year's Tour. It covered three hard Category 1 ascents from Saint-Gaudens and a final push up to Pla d'Adet ski station above the town of Saint-Lary-Soulan.
Majka, who also won Stage 14 in the Alps, again showed he's the best climber in this Tour and tightened his grip on the polka dot jersey, which is awarded to the race's King of the Mountains.
Giovanni Visconti got the action going on the last climb, but his solo breakaway with about 5 1/2 miles left could not hold off Majka. Visconti, who is also Sicilian, was second, 29 seconds back, and Nibali was third, 46 seconds behind.
With a last Pyrenean day ahead Thursday, Majka could ensure that he takes the red-dot jersey home. His closest rival for it when the stage started was Spain's
Majka said he felt "comfort" in the last five kilometers in part because he'd been saving up energy a day earlier by riding easier. He finished in a bunch 24 1/2 minutes behind Australian teammate Michael Rogers, who won Stage 16.
By Wednesday, "I felt really, really good in the last climb," Majka said, after tapping his chest, thrusting his arms skyward and shouting in joy at the victory. "For me, when there are a lot of climbs, it's the best."
There was a time when seemingly effortless victories smacked of something more sinister at the Tour: the use of performance-enhancers.
Few know the scars of cycling's doping past more than Majka's own manager at the Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team, Bjarne Riis. Once a national hero in Denmark after winning the 1996 Tour, he admitted to using blood-booster EPO more than a decade later -- and was vilified for it. He laid low for a while, but then returned to the pro cycling world.
"I promised Bjarne today that I would win the stage," said Majka.
The echoes of doping resonated Wednesday on the grassy Pyrenean mountainside: The last times that Saint-Lary-Soulan hosted a Tour stage finishes were in 2001 and 2005 -- won by
Cycling has made great strides in fighting doping with enhanced blood and urine testing, along with the biological passport program, but few experts would claim that the peloton today is entirely clean.
Nibali, who has called himself a "flag-bearer of anti-doping", made his latest case to become the first Italian to win cycling's showcase race in 16 years -- since Marco Pantani, who was once convicted for doping.
Nibali gained just under a minute on four of his closest rivals. Second-placed Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who made a valiant recovery on the last ascent to avoid even more damage, now trails by 5 minute, 26 seconds.
The exception was
"Yesterday was a pity, it was an off day," the BMC leader said. A podium spot is still possible, he added, "but it will be hard."
Stage 18's finale in the Pyrenees takes the pack on a 90-mile loop from Pau to Hautacam, featuring two ascents that are so hard that they defy cycling's ranking system -- one of them an uphill finish.
Then it's a flat stage heading northward Friday before an individual time-trial a day later, and then what's likely to be the largely ceremonial ride for the yellow jersey in Stage 21 on Sunday to the Champs-Elysees in Paris for the finish of this 101st Tour edition.
While well-positioned to be in yellow then, Nibali was still attacking Wednesday.