Italian Vincenzo Nibali took a giant step towards his maiden Giro d'Italia triumph by smashing his rivals on his way to winning a rain-soaked 18th stage uphill time trial from Mori to Polsa on Thursday.

Australian Cadel Evans began the day only 1min 26sec behind the Italian with two key mountain stages to go, but flattered to deceive on his way to finishing nearly three minutes behind.

Ahead of the two mountain stages in the Dolomites, which may have to be altered depending on the severity of the wintry weather expected at high altitude, Nibali now leads Evans by 4:02.

Colombian Rigoberto Uran is in third place overall at 4:12 with former pink jersey winner Michele Scarponi, who is aiming for a podium finish, fourth at 5:14.

Victory in sight

It was Nibali's first stage win of this year's race, and third overall, and should be enough to see him become the first Italian to win the Giro since Scarponi was handed the 2011 title after Alberto Contador of Spain was disqualified for doping.

"I have a significant advantage now and that will allow me to control the coming two stages in more tranquil fashion," said Nibali, who rides for the Astana team.

Nibali, the 2010 Tour of Spain winner and runner-up on the 2011 Giro d'Italia, came to this year's race extra determined having been pushed into third place by Bradley Wiggins at last year's Tour de France.

However few expected the Italian to dominate as he did on a rolling, uphill course that was suited to the climbing specialists.

Spaniard Samuel Sanchez, whose overall victory hopes have faded steadily since the start of the three-week race, set the early pace from among the big names in a time of 45:27 - when the course was still fairly dry.

It allowed Euskaltel's team leader to take the provisional lead with a time that was 22secs faster than Italian Damiano Caruso but, despite heavy rain hitting the course later on, Sanchez was unceremoniously pushed into second place when Nibali, punching his arms in triumph, posted a time that was 58secs faster.

Caruso (Cannondale) finished third on the stage at 1:20, with Scarponi (Lampre) fourth at 1:21 and Uran (Sky) sixth at 1:26.

Wiggins began the Giro as Nibali's main threat, but the Englishman, as well as Canada's defending champion Ryder Hesjedal, quit the race due to illness last week.

The race finishes on Sunday with a mainly flat 197 km stage from Riese Pio X to Brescia.

Source: AFP