Nibali’s Tour takes a positive turn
As the defending champion, Vincenzo Nibali came into this Tour de France with enormous pressure on his shoulders and he cracked when the race hit the first high mountains.
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His team manager slated him and effectively took the leadership away from him and the freedom to just race has allowed us to see the best of the Italian.
Nibali has become the most attacking of the general classification contenders over the last few stages, even though most of his bursts have been hauled back almost immediately.
On stage 19, though, the Astana rider timed his break well and got away over the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer.
Even though he’s one of the best descenders in the pro peloton, Nibali was made to work hard to catch Europcar’s Pierre Rolland up the road, but when he made the catch the pair worked together to build a gap over the Col du Mollard.
The Frenchman ran out of gas on La Toussuire but Nibali powered on up the 17km climb and took victory by 44 seconds over Nairo Quintana.
It’s not been the Tour that Nibali nor his team would have wanted, but the Sicilian has won back some respect and climbed up to fourth overall. Another strong performance on Alpe d’Huez on Saturday could propel him above Alejandro Valverde and onto the podium.
Will Quintana’s attack be enough?
Even though Nibali was putting in one of the best rides of the Tour up the road, all eyes were on Nairo Quintana on La Toussuire to see just when he would make his move.
At 17km in length, the diminutive Colombian had plenty of time to put his foot down, but he left it until the 5km to go mark until he went.
The move was a good one; waiting until Froome was a little way back in their small bunch and then springing from third wheel ahead of everyone. Crafty Valverde then edged across the road, which blocked Froome’s quickest route to Quintana, meaning he had to weave towards the side of the road to get past.
Initially it looked as though Froome would bridge to Quintana, but as soon as Contador and Valverde dropped off the Brit’s wheel it became clear a real gap was forming.
Out of the saddle, Quintana powered on up the climb while Froome remained rooted to his seat, turning a high cadence.
Having waited since stage 11 to see Quintana even attempt a real attack it was good to see what the guy can really do on the climbs, but as good a climber as he is, it’s tough to see him gaining 2:38 on Froome on Alpe d’Huez.
Is Froome struggling?
Despite ‘only’ losing 30 seconds to Quintana it was far from a good stage for Froome.
Right from the gun the Team Sky leader saw his teammates drop like flies; the ever reliable Geraint Thomas was dropped early on the Col du Chaussy, as were Nico Roche and Richie Porte.
Everyone made it back to the front after the descent and for the flat section in the Maurienne valley but as soon as the route ramped back up over the monstrous Col de la Croix de Fer he was left exposed once more.
Wout Poels showed his mettle by clinging on even when he looked to be struggling and was on hand to help the Brit back to his group when he got a stone caught in his rear brake, forcing him to stop on the road.
Just as he stopped, though, Nibali laid his winning attack – something that rankled Froome at the finish line.
When Quintana made his move, Froome was able to limit his losses. Whether he had more in the tank to have bridged across to Quintana is unknown, but undoubtedly he would have held something back for tomorrow’s Battle Royale up the Tour’s most famous climb.
Why was Valverde constantly marking Alberto Contador?
While we knew that Quintana would attack at one point, we also were treated to an early Contador attack on the first climb of the day. Nothing came of it, though, because Valverde was following his every move – an annoying trait that continued all day.
The Movistar pair of Quitana and Valverde were still racing for the win, according to team manager Eusebio Unzue before the stage, but Valverde’s tactics made it pretty clear he didn’t want Contador getting anywhere near his third place position.
Then, on the final climb Rafal Majka set a fierce pace up La Toussuire, presumably to try and get Contador the stage win, but that pace in turn meant Movistar found it hard to lay the attack that the race needed to give it some life.
Eventually Quintana applied the gun and got away, with Contador and Valverde happy to follow Froome. When Contador cracked and dropped off, so did that man Valverde.
Someone is settling for third, I think.
Geraint Thomas had a rough day
“As they say, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. I was a cheapy little Ikea one today. It was terrible,” said Thomas after the stage, in which he lost 22 minutes and plummeted out of the top-10.
Thomas was struggling from the off, given that the route started with the climb of the Col du Chaussy. He clawed himself back on the flat but ended up settling in one of the many grupettos that formed on the road.
In the end he finished in a group containing the likes of Steve Cummings, Peter Sagan and, bizarrely, Bryan Coquard, with the Welshman dropping from fourth overall to 17th – 10 minutes off the top 10.
It’s still an overwhelmingly successful Tour for Thomas, who probably didn’t have any expectations from the team to have a high GC finish, but on a personal level I’m sure he’ll be gutted to miss out on a top-10 overall.