Tour de France. The riders faced a 208.5 km (129.5 mile) ride from Maubourguet Pays du Val d'Adour to Bergerac with steady downpours following them for most of the way. Those made for slick conditions on the road, and had an impact on the eventual outcome of the stage. Those rain soaked roads also underscored the dangers that overall race leader Vincenzo Nibali still faces on his ride into Paris.
After leaving the high mountains of the Pyrenees behind yesterday, today's stage featured just a few rolling hills, and a single Category 4 climb, along the route. But that Cat 4 climb was a step ascent, and it was put to good use by Lithuanian rider Ramunas Navardauskas, riding for Garmin Sharp. He managed to catch stage leader Alex Howes at the crest of the hill, and set off on a 13 km (8 mile) solo ride to the finish that saw him cross the finish line just ahead of a surging group of riders in pursuit. The win gives Navardauskas the distinction of being the first Lithuanian rider to win a stage at the Tour de France.
But he didn't do it completely on his own. The weather helped to a degree, as the slick roads caused a crash amongst the primary pursuit group with just under 3 km (1.8 miles) to go to the finish line. That crash sent a number of riders to the ground, including Frank Schleck, Romain Bardet and Peter Sagan, who was expected to contend for the stage win up until that point. Sagan's bike was broken in the crash, and he was forced to wait for the arrival of a replacement, effectively ending his chances of earning a stage win at this year's race.
The bad weather was a good reminder to Nibali that he hasn't won the race until he crosses the finish line in Paris. One bad accident could still end his chances, and considering how many riders we've seen crash out this year, the idea of Nibali joining them isn't all that crazy. Fortunately, he was able to avoid the crashes today, and navigate safely to the finish, without surrendering any time to his rivals or suffering an injury himself. With just the individual time trial left on the schedule for tomorrow, and more than a seven minute gap between him and second place rider Thibaut Pinot, I'm sure the Italian will be cautious if the rains return for the penultimate day of the Tour.
While first place is all but wrapped up by Nibali, the battle for the podium is far from over. Just 15 seconds separate the second, third, and fourth place riders, each of whom will be looking for precious time in the time trial. Pinot holds a narrow 13 second lead over Jean-Christophe Péraud, and Alejandro Valverde is just two seconds further back. That isn't much time at all in a long time trial, and Valverde is probably the strongest of the tree in that discipline. Heading into Saturday, none of these riders has a firm hold on their position just yet.
As we turn toward the final ride to Paris, the various TdF Jerseys are pretty much wrapped up. Nibali will no doubt retain the Yellow Jersey as the overall winner of the race, while Sagan will once again claim Green with an unassailable lead in the points category. The King of the Mountains Jersey will go to Rafal Majka as the Tour's best climber, while the White Jersey for the best young rider seems destined to remain on the back of Pinot. That young man looks to have a promising career ahead of him, and could possibly end France's many year's of frustration in their own cycling event.
As mentioned numerous times, tomorrow's stage will be a 54 km (33.5 mile) individual time trial running from Bergerac to Périgueux. The profile does feature some challenging hills to overcome, but nothing like the big climbs of the past week. It should be a route that is well suited for a rider like Tony Martin, who is amongst the best time trialists in the world. If the rain returns however, it could be another day for crashes on the slick roads.
On Sunday, the peloton will turn towards Paris at long last with a 137.5 km )(85.5 mile) ride that begins in Évry, and ends with a crazy sprint finish on the Champs Élysées. For Nibali, it'll simply be a ceremonial victory lap, as no one attacks the Maillot Jaune on the final day. If all goes as planned tomorrow, the Italian will claim victory in the 2014 Tour.