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TOUR DE FRANCE

Vincenzo Nibali wins Stage 18, closes in on Tour victory

A spectator was about the only person to keep up with Tour leader Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday, when the Italian won his fourth stage of the event. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Lauren Cipriani/AP

A spectator was about the only person to keep up with Tour leader Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday, when the Italian won his fourth stage of the event.

ARGELES-GAZOST, France — As his team hoped, Vincenzo Nibali demonstrated he’s the ‘‘boss’’ of the Tour de France. Just don’t compare him with the last rider to regularly bear that sobriquet at cycling’s greatest race, Lance Armstrong.

In a tour de force on Thursday, Nibali blew away the peloton on a Pyrenees ascent too tough to be rated in Stage 18, all but locking up victory when the race ends in Paris in three days.

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Nibali has combined racing smarts, skill at bike-handling, and powerful climbing legs to methodically piece together a lead of more than seven minutes, gaining seconds ‘‘here and there,’’ as he put it after his fourth stage win.

That margin, if it holds, would be the second largest in 25 years: Jan Ullrich won by more than nine minutes in 1997. Armstrong won five of his seven titles from 1999 to 2005 by more than six minutes, but those victories were stripped after he was exposed as a doping cheat.

The last Italian to win the Tour was ‘‘The Pirate,’’ Marco Pantani, in 1998. Nibali too knows about nicknames.

His family calls him Enzino. An attacking rider, he’s been known as the ‘‘Shark of the Straits’’ in reference to the Strait of Messina off Sicily. One from his boyhood reemerged on Thursday after the win at Hautacam resort: ‘‘Flea of the Pyrenees’’ — a nod to its first bearer, Vincent Treuba of Spain, decades ago.

Alexandre Vinokourov, general manager of Nibali’s Astana team, said the Kazakh squad wanted the rider to show he deserved another. ‘‘We said, ‘We need to show that there’s a boss,’ ’’ Vinokourov said on French TV, recalling the team’s game plan before Thursday’s stage. He said the stage victory was ‘‘not by chance.’’

But Nibali wasn’t impressed by the comparisons with the disgraced Armstrong.

‘‘I came to the Tour with a good preparation and a good team. But I’m not a boss like Lance Armstrong was,’’ he said through a translator. ‘‘Let’s leave the past behind us. I’m very clear about myself.’’

The Italian has worn the yellow jersey for all but two days: That was last achieved by Armstrong nine years ago.

Riders tackled the famed Tourmalet pass — the highest Pyrenean peak in this Tour — before heading to Hautacam on Thursday. Both climbs are among the toughest in professional cycling.

On the big, final climb, Nibali broke out of the peloton, chased down breakaway riders, and rode solo in front for the last 5 miles uphill.

The win in the 90-mile leg from Pau to Hautacam, where Nibali padded almost two minutes to his lead, essentially reduced the race drama to who will join him on the podium on the Champs-Elysees.

Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud advanced their hopes to give France its first podium finisher since 1997. They each gained just under a minute on Alejandro Valverde in the final climb, bumping the Spaniard to fourth.

Friday’s stage is mostly flat and unlikely to alter the top standings. Nibali’s lead is so big — 7 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of Pinot, and 7:23 on Peraud — that it would take a disaster for him to lose the lead before Sunday.

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