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“Preparation, team strategy, that’s all good. But it’s the engine that makes the difference in times like this,” Martinelli added.

Nibai crossed 24 seconds behind Majka, followed by Jean-Christophe Peraud in third, two seconds slower. Bardet and fellow French rider Thibaut Pinot conducted a two-man sprint and crossed another 24 seconds back. Van Garderen was fifth, 54 seconds behind.

“From the team car, I was told: ‘If you still have something in the tank, go for it,’” Nibali said. “I was looking at gaining some time over Alejandro Valverde. I heard that he cracked after I left him.”

Valverde, speaking from a team car, said “I didn’t crack!” and explained that his trouble stemmed mainly from bad coordination with Pinot on the final climb and taking leadership of their bunch. As for the overall title chase, Valverde said: “Nibali is the strongest, but we others are neck and neck.”

Nibali addressed speculation that he might have known Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who was banned by the Italian Cycling Federation in 2002 and by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency two years ago for serving as a doping consultant on Lance Armstrong’s winning teams.

“I’ve never met him personally. I’ve been accused in the past to have worked with him,” said Nibali, referring to allegations that there were photographs of him together with Ferrari. “Those pictures simply didn’t exist.”

Sunday’s stage offers some relief after the Alps: Stage 15 is a flat 222 kilometers (138 miles) from Tallard to Nimes, before riders take the second rest day.