The Tour de France’s founder, Henri Desgrange, a turn-of-the-century carnival barker with a sadistic streak, was once quoted as saying that the ideal Tour de France would be one in which only one rider finished. At the rate the 2014 event is going, his wish might finally come true, at least as far as the overall favourites are concerned.
In a tumultuous day of racing in the Vosges, Alberto Contador’s ambitions of winning the Tour were left in ruins when he crashed out of the race at the foot of the third climb, the Col du Platzerwasel. Third-placed Tiago Machado, of Netapp, was also in the wars – he was reported to have pulled out of the race following another crash but climbed back on his bike, only to finish dead last, 43 minutes down. Dauphine champion Andrew Talansky may not have crashed today, but a run of falls in the last few stages had battered his body to the extent that it gave up the ghost today – he dropped 10 minutes.
In fact, looking at the view over the general classification from the top of the final climb, the Planche des Belles Filles, every rider except one might have lost the Tour today. From a stage of irrepressible chaos, Nibali emerged to win the stage and regain the yellow jersey he’d so nonchalantly given away to Tony Gallopin yesterday.
If Nibali had made plans for today, he had to rip them up early. As the stage hit the halfway point, events both in front of and behind him were rapidly and simultaneously putting pressure on him. With Contador initially back on his bike and minutes behind, Nibali’s Astana team were put into a difficult position. On a quieter day, they might have done the gentlemanly thing and sat up to wait for Contador to chase back on (the Spaniard pedalled on up and over the climb before withdrawing from the race). But they couldn’t ignore the fact that a group containing sixth-placed Michal Kwiatkowski, along with his Omega Pharma team-mate Tony Martin, was four minutes up the road.
It was a quick decision: Nibali looked forward, not back, and Astana quietly slipped to the front of the peloton to subtly increase the pace, underscoring Contador’s hopeless predicament with a thin blue line of riders.
Yesterday, the battle was Tony Martin versus the rest of the Tour de France, and the German rider won, holding off his rivals to comfortably win in Mulhouse. Today saw a replay of the match, with Tony Martin, now in the climbers’ jersey, doing almost all the work in the Kwiatkowski group. The group also contained Joaquim Rodriguez and Thomas Voeckler, who were engaged in a mismatched battle for the mountains points. It took Astana, with the help of Lotto, then Sky and Movistar, a long, long time to pull back Martin: the final survivor of the group, Joaquim Rodriguez, was caught with only 1,200 metres to go.
The last time the Tour came to La Planche des Belles Filles, in 2012, the peloton hit the bottom of the climb together, then Team Sky effectively strangled the race with an implacable team time trial to the summit, definitively shaping the general classification for the rest of the race. Today was an entirely different process although the end result was not dissimilar, with Nibali looking less and less like a Tour contender and more and more like the Tour winner, even before the Alps, just like Bradley Wiggins did two years ago.
Nibali’s attack on stage two into Sheffield, and his superb, aggressive ride over the cobbles of stage five were heavy, thudding body blows to his rivals’ ambitions. But the attack which took him clear of them with four kilometres to go on La Planche des Belles Filles might turn out to be the knockout blow. Two stage wins, the yellow jersey, his two biggest rivals out of the race, and the gap between him and second place inching out to almost two and a half minutes; Nibali will face the second half of the Tour with growing confidence.
There hasn’t been a Tour like this for years. 1983 and 1987 were both unpredictable, anarchic races, thrown open by the lack of previous contenders or winners able to impose themselves on the race. Maybe 1999 or 2006 were similar. (We don’t like to talk about them.)
Established wisdom says that riding into the top 10 of the Tour these days involves hanging in as long as possible with the GC group, and minimising losses. However, this year, riders are attacking to try and move up the overall. Yesterday, Tony Gallopin, Pierre Rolland and Machado all leapt into the top 10; today Kwiatkowski gave it a go.
An early break went. So far, so 2013. It included Thomas Voeckler and Christophe Riblon, hunting with varying degrees of success for mountains points. Astana’s Lieuwe Westra reprised his stage five escape by getting into the break, in order to give Nibali some help later; Giovanni Visconti did the same for Movistar and Alejandro Valverde, while Amael Moinard did the same for BMC and Tejay Van Garderen. Trek’s Markel Irizar and Bretagne’s Arnaud Gerard were more typical break fodder.
Then things got a little bit weirder. Peter Sagan, in the green jersey, bridged up with Joaquim Rodriguez and Jan Barta of Netapp. The bonus sprint was in the valley after the first climb, so Sagan was looking for 20 cheap points, not that he really needed them (he is now 131 points ahead in the green jersey competition). Still, everybody had a good reason for being there, and the peloton seemed happy for the escape to get on with it. The gap went out to three minutes as they climbed the first climb, the Col du Firstplan, and it looked like the pattern of the day was set.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. At some point on the descent of the Firstplan, Omega Pharma decided that there wasn’t anywhere near enough entropy in the stage, and attacked, with Kwiatkowski and Martin. Rein Taaramae of Cofidis and Marcel Wyss and Reto Hollenstein of IAM tagged along, although on the strict understanding that they would be no more than temporary passengers. It took the best part of 25 kilometres, up and over the Grand Ballon climb, for them to hit the front of the race, and by the time they got there, the lead over the peloton was four minutes.
It was at this point that Contador crashed. According to reports from other riders, he’d taken risks on the descent of the Grand Ballon, and hit a pothole, coming off heavily and leaving a deep gash in his right knee. As with Chris Froome, who crashed out of the race on stage five, the physical injury came first and was bad (it later transpired he’d broken his leg), but the psychological damage looked as debilitating. As Contador gingerly got back on his bike and slowly pedalled after the race, he was unrecognisable. This was the rider who faced down Lance Armstrong in 2009, and kept a poker face throughout the scandal of his positive test for clenbuterol in 2010, but he looked utterly defeated by his misfortune today.
10 kilometres later, the Spaniard gave up, He climbed into the Tinkoff team car on the false flat descent at the top of the Platzerwasel, the only witnesses to his misery a middle-aged man in a yellow poncho, a boy holding a French flag, and a couple of photographers pressing their lenses up against the window of the car.
Astana’s race had at once become more simple, and more complicated. Contador was out of the picture, but they now had a rampant Tony Martin to deal with. The stage might have looked like it consisted of seven climbs, one after the other, but there were a lot of rolling roads and false flat involved too, especially after the Platzerwasel and Oderon climbs. Martin excels on this kind of terrain, and Astana made no headway into his lead until they were inside the final 30 kilometres.
Martin came to a shuddering halt on the Col des Chevreres, leaving Kwiatkowski with a 20-kilometre ride to try and hold his lead. It was too much – after looking like the race might slip beyond their control, Astana were gaining in confidence and coherence and Michele Scarponi reduced the gap over the final steep kilometres of the Chevreres. Scarponi overshot a corner on the descent, but recovered in time to pace Nibali up the first two kilometres of the Planche des Belles Filles.
It wasn’t quite as dominant a performance as the Sky train two years ago – Scarponi managed two kilometres before cracking. But the way Nibali finished it off, leaving his main contenders struggling in his wake, had echoes of 2012, even if his time gain over stage runner-up Thibaut Pinot was only 15 seconds.
Apart from the fact that he’s clearly the strongest, and looks the most confident and inventive of the yellow jersey contenders, Nibali can also take a lot of satisfaction from two facts.
First, the gap to second-placed Richie Porte is almost two and a half minutes. Second, the next 10 riders behind him are all within two minutes of each other. At some point, they’ll stop trying to beat Nibali, and start trying to beat each other.