BELFORT, France (Reuters) - All the talk before the Tour de France was about the battle between favourite Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans, with neutrals hoping for a "third man" to appear from the pack and make the race more interesting.
That man is likely to be Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, who rose to third in the overall standings on Saturday after keeping pace with new leader Wiggins and Evans on the race's first ascent up to the Les Planche des Belles Filles on stage seven.
He finished fourth, seven seconds behind stage winner Chris Froome and just behind second-placed Evans and Wiggins in third, as the absence of banned great Alberto Contador was countered by a thrilling end to the climb.
"I'm satisfied both for the performance and the gap with the other contenders," Nibali, nicknamed "the Shark", told reporters.
"I showed that I can be competitive and the same with my team. We managed the race in the best way during the first week and I'm sure we can do the same in the next two."
It is no real surprise that the 27-year-old Liquigas rider is challenging given he won Spain's Vuelta in 2010 and has outclassed double Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso to become team leader.
Ace sprinter Peter Sagan is also on Liquigas's books and his three stage wins so far meant his team mates were not far behind as they pushed him to victory, leaving Nibali with little lost time on the leaders.
While less comfortable in the time trials which could end up dominating this Tour, Nibali is comfortable in the mountains and will look to stay on Team Sky's tail after Britons Froome and Wiggins impressed everyone with their stamina on Saturday.
"I didn't expect such a strong selection in the group and compliments to Team Sky for their job," added Nibali, 16 seconds behind yellow jersey holder Wiggins overall.
Australia's Evans, 10 behind Wiggins, was wowed by Sky but also needs to keep his eye on Nibali.
"Froome was really incredible. To follow me and accelerate past me, he could probably take the climb at his own rhythm. From behind it looked like he went easy," the 35-year-old said, before criticising his BMC team.
"When you see Wiggins has three guys with him and I've got one - or maybe I'm isolated already - what can you do that's going to last from a long way out?"
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)