To paraphrase a quote attributed to Mark Twain, cycling history doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The second consecutive Alpine summit finish of the 2014 Tour de France saw Rafal Majka and Vincenzo Nibali finish in the first two places, just as they did on Chamrousse yesterday, with the yellow jersey gaining another healthy wedge of time on his rivals.
Their positions were switched, however. Majka, his ambition only sharpened by his second place on Chamrousse, got into the early break, which was never allowed to stretch its lead into a convincing one. While his companions got involved in scraps for mountains points, he calmly bided his time and counterattacked off Alessandro De Marchi’s acceleration on the final climb to Risoul.
Behind, Ag2r chased, lost time as the gap to Majka went from 30 seconds to a minute, then got their GC men the wrong way round when Jean-Christophe Peraud followed Vincenzo Nibali’s violent acceleration at four kilometres to go. Ag2r had been one of the most aggressive teams in the stage, attacking on the Izoard descent for an indulgent but tactically suspect act of cycling onanism.
Nibali closed back to 24 seconds with Peraud, but second place and an increased lead on GC represented a successful day for the Italian. Conversely, Jurgen Van den Broeck dropped out of the top 10, while Alejandro Valverde was also distanced by his closest rivals in the final kilometres.
The Spaniard was criticised for not contributing to Thibaut Pinot’s effort yesterday, so his detractors will have been amused that the last sight he had of his rivals was Pinot, Tejay van Garderen and Romain Bardet team time trialling away in a co-operatively smooth rotation through the final three kilometres.
While Nibali’s lead is now 4-37 on second-placed Valverde, the gap from second to sixth compressed as Valverde dropped back and Peraud, sixth, moved up. Van Garderen, lurking in fifth place at 5-49, riding more strongly every day and by far the best time triallist among the top six, must be coveting Valverde’s second overall.
There are some potential soap operas brewing behind Nibali. Valverde, Bardet, Pinot, Van Garderen and Peraud, second to sixth, are not separated by much, and have compellingly different skillsets. Even more interestingly, Bardet and Peraud, both riding for Ag2r, appear not to be reading from the same tactical instruction sheet.
Peraud is not quite riding for Bardet in the final, crucial, kilometres of the summit finishes, and what’s more, is a significantly better time triallist than his young team-mate. Their sponsoring company sells insurance, but Bardet must be wondering if Peraud is an insurance policy, or the team’s premium contender.
Admittedly, the yellow jersey contest is now a bit of a yawn. We can’t complain – for years we had to sit through umpteen flat stages in the first 10 days before anything significant happened in the GC, so we got what we wished for, with a spectacularly exciting opening 12 days.
It’s not Nibali’s fault that Chris Froome and Alberto Contador crashed out, and he’ll probably carry on gaining handfuls of time through the Pyrenees, then consolidating in the final time trial and celebrating his first Tour win in Paris. He doesn’t care if you are bored.
Vincenzo Nibali extends overall lead over rivals as the fight for podium places hots up