Vincenzo Nibali's performance as the Tour de France hit the Alps crushed the opposition
The Sicilian Defence is a chess opening for the player with the black pieces. It’s a bit of a misnomer – although it’s technically a defence, it’s one of the most aggressive ways for black to start a game against the most common white opening: E2-E4.
Yellow Jersey Vincenzo Nibali, who shares the opening’s Sicilian roots, is operating a similar strategy at the Tour de France. He watched Alejandro Valverde make the first move on the Chamrousse climb – a classic E2-E4 ride in which the Spaniard put a line of Movistar riders on the front of the bunch, then attacked himself. Nibali responded with an attack of his own, this one unanswerable.
The Tour is turning into a rout. Vincenzo Nibali’s solo stage win on this, the first Alpine stage of the 2014 Tour, confirmed that only bad luck will prevent the Italian from winning in Paris. He’s dominated his rivals in the hills of Yorkshire, on the cobbles of northern France, in the middle mountains of the Vosges, in cold, wet weather and in the heat. Now he’s proved he’s the strongest in the high mountains. It would be a surprise if he won the time trial next week, but the way he’s riding, he won’t need to. Today’s ride was a coronation.
Behind Nibali, and Rafael Majka and Leopold Konig, who were second and third on the stage, the final hierarchy of the Tour was evolving. Alejandro Valverde and Thibaut Pinot were the next of the top contenders to come in – tomorrow’s summit finish and the Pyrenean stages should confirm that these two riders are the most likely to stand below Nibali on the podium in Paris. Pinot and Valverde formed a fractious two-up, with Pinot doing a lot of the work, and Valverde thanking him with a couple of ill-mannered attacks, the second of which gained him three seconds on the line.
Both Valverde and Pinot should be wary of the next group of riders to come in, however. Tejay van Garderen and Romain Bardet were only 30 seconds in arrears, and Bardet is still ahead of Pinot overall, while van Garderen can confidently expect to take two or three minutes out of Pinot in the final time trial. And further down the road: a group of riders including Jurgen Van den Broeck, Bauke Mollema, Frank Schleck, Haimar Zubeldia and Jean-Christophe Peraud. The Tour was a wild, anarchic unpredictable race up to the first rest day, but today’s results started following a more logical course. The fire is being dampened down.
The others have already started fighting over the scraps left behind by Nibali. The early break was chased down by the Katusha team, whose leader Joaquim Rodriguez was hoping to pick up a handful of points over the first-category Col de Palaquit (he got two points for his trouble, and lost the lead in the King of the Mountains classification to Nibali). Valverde and Pinot, Bardet and van Garderen, are racing for the podium.
Movistar did show some ambition with their opening gambit at the bottom of Chamrousse, but their effort fizzled out and the 20 strongest climbers in the race coalesced around Nibali and Valverde as virtually all team help disappeared backwards down the mountain. Nibali and Valverde were isolated. BMC’s van Garderen briefly had Peter Stetina for moral support, while Ag2r, with Bardet and Peraud, Trek, with Zubeldia and Schleck, Belkin with Laurens Ten Dam and Mollema, and Saxo Bank with Rafael Majka and Michael Rogers, had numbers in the front group. But none had the strength, or any good reason, to ride at the front.
Even when second-placed Richie Porte got dropped, his capitulation was so sudden and obvious that nobody felt the need to turn the screw. That would happen naturally as Porte dropped further and further behind, losing nine minutes by the end.
The GC riders seemed so unwilling to attack each other that Konig and Majka were able to slip away with 11 kilometres to go without attracting too much attention. They almost got away with it, but Nibali crushed their dreams as mercilessly and easily as he has crushed everybody else’s.
Back to the Sicilian Defence. Its only drawback is that its aggression sometimes leads to vulnerability to a swift attack from the white pieces. Unfortunately, it seems that Nibali has already achieved checkmate.