PEYRAGUDES, France (AFP) -- Bradley Wiggins struggled to keep his emotions in check on the final big climb of the Tour de France as he moved a step closer toward a historic victory in the race.
But the Englishman finally agreed with what most of the experts have been saying for days -- that only catastrophe can stop him becoming Britain's first winner of the world's biggest bicycle race.
Wiggins crossed the finish line of the 143.5 kilometer stage between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Peyragudes on the wheel of Sky teammate Chris Froome, just 19 seconds behind stage winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
The pair had chased Valverde on the fifth and final climb, but despite missing out on the stage win, their day's work was not without reward.
The attacks expected from third-place Vincenzo Nibali, who started the day 2 minutes, 23 seconds behind Wiggins, failed to materialize, though his Liquigas-Cannondale team spent much of the day on the front on the penultimate climb. Indeed, Nibali lost 18 seconds to Wiggins after an attack by Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol).
The stage left Wiggins with a lead of 2:05 on second-place Froome and 2:41 on Nibali.
With several tricky climbs to negotiate and a finale with little flat terrain, there was always a chance that Wiggins could come unstuck.
But the strategy that his Sky team has used to such good effect since the start of the race in Liège nearly three weeks ago remained unchanged.
Wiggins, who took the lead on Stage 7, when Froome won his maiden stage at La Planche des Belles Filles, said he can finally see himself as the winner in Paris on Sunday.
"The moment we crossed the Peyresourde, I allowed myself to drift and that was the first time I thought, 'Maybe I've won the Tour today,'" said Wiggins. "Once we saw Nibali had cracked on the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we weren't going to have the danger of him attacking in the final.
"At that point I knew it was pretty much over."
Nibali's Liquigas team had tried in vain to turn the screw on Wiggins and Froome on the way up the Peyresourde, the next-to-last of the day's five climbs. But they never appeared to be under threat.
Van den Broeck pulled away on two occasions, forcing a split that ultimately proved costly to defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing). Having dropped to 8:06 behind Wiggins on Wednesday, he is now 9:57 adrift.
The Belgian tried again with 3.5km to climb, but Froome confidently moved in front, a move that left Nibali behind.
With Valverde's advantage closing steadily, Froome was itching to go on the attack -- both to win the stage and take more time from Sky's rivals.
After discussions between the pair, Froome pulled a few meters ahead of Wiggins on at least one occasion, leaving his team leader apparently in trouble.
Wiggins later explained: "Chris said he wanted to go for the stage and I said yes. We weren't too sure of the time gaps.
"All the way up that last climb, my concentration had gone, everything about performance had gone. Chris was egging me on to take more time and I was in another world, really."
It was arguably Wiggins' loss of concentration and perception of events that cost Froome a possible stage victory.
But his 27-year-old lieutenant did not make any complaints.
"The priority has always been to support Bradley, and to defend the yellow jersey," Froome said.