PAU, France (AFP) - Vincenzo Nibali is winning the Tour de France so easily that the Italian admitted he is actually riding within himself.
Since all three past winners of the world's greatest bicycle race crashed out earlier during the Grand Boucle, Nibali has been in a class of his own.
Reigning champion Chris Froome crashed out on the fifth stage with a broken hand and wrist while two-time former winner Alberto Contador broke his shinbone in a fall on the 10th stage on Bastille Day.
Andy Schleck, the 2010 champion who was never a serious contender this year, didn't even ride on French territory having quit following the opening three stages in Britain after he too hit the deck.
Nibali extended his overall lead to Spaniard Alejandro Valverde to 5min 26sec after finishing third on Wednesday's 17th stage from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan.
As he had done in every other mountain stage, and indeed every stage with an uphill finish, he put time into at least some of his nearest rivals.
Afterwards, the 29-year-old Sicilian admitted he wasn't even pushing himself to his limits.
"My condition is very good and I'm ready to push right to the end but when I get to the end of a stage I'm not giving everything because I don't have to, and I've also had an eye on the next stage," he said.
However, he admitted it would have been different had the best riders been there.
"If Chris Froome or Alberto were riding I would need to push much more but then I would also have to manage the race differently and play more of a waiting game," he added.
"When they attack they are more explosive so I would have to be careful.
"I have a lot of respect for these riders."
Nibali put his success at this Tour down to the long-term planning of his Astana team.
"It's due to the work that we did with the whole team because we prepared for the Tour," he said.
"We didn't pick the best riders for the Tour de France, we picked a group and worked together.
"My objective since the beginning of the year was to be ready for the Tour de France and everything we did, we did it together.
"We created a good group not just in terms of the workplace but as friends and that's our strong point." Another team working well together is Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo.
Despite their leader crashing out they have won the last three mountain stages.
Young Pole Rafal Majka claimed victory in the Pyrenees on Wednesday, just four days after his success in the Alps.
In between, Australian Michael Rogers took Tuesday's mammoth 237.5km stage from Carcassonne to Bagneres de Luchon.
"We had bad luck on the 10th stage (when Contador crashed) but after that stage we had a rest day and (manager) Bjarne (Riis) and (owner) Oleg (Tinkov) told the guys we needed to fight and win a stage," said Majka.
"We didn't win one, we've won three and I feel good for Paris."
The 24-year-old also took the polkadot jersey for best climber from Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez on Tuesday and extended his lead by 30 points on Wednesday.
He has been the only rider to show signs that he can beat Nibali in the mountains but Majka, who was sixth at May's Giro d'Italia, stopped short of setting lofty Tour objectives in the future.
"This is my first Tour de France and I've won two stages.
"I'm really happy now, I really like the Tour de France.
"For me it's the best (Grand Tour), it has really nice weather always, not like the Giro with the cold and rain. Here it's warm and hot, I like this weather."