Up to this morning, the general classification battles of the 2014 Tour de France have been tactical, and the advantage has lain with Vincenzo Nibali, who thrives in the kind of improvisatory chaos of stages two, over the Pennines, and stage five, over the cobbles.
And until the last 100 metres of the final climb of La Mauselaine, above Gerardmer, where Ag2r’s Blel Kadri took a breakaway stage win, it looked as if the Italian rider was also going to have the advantage in a more straightforward and logical battle of strength.
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Nibali had matched his rival Alberto Contador pedal stroke for pedal stroke up the steep slopes, with every other overall contender left in their wake. But just as it looked as if Contador would have to accept the stalemate, a tantalising glimpse of victory was dangled before his eyes.
Contador maintained his pace, even accelerated, over those final 100 metres, but Nibali, who’d looked comfortable up to that point, slowed. There wasn’t time for a Tour-winning attack – Contador’s gains amounted to three measly seconds, less than two per cent of the time separating the pair overall – but the psychological gain was a lot more significant.
There was just enough evidence here that Nibali is going to spend the next two weeks on the defensive, and that Contador is going to make his life extremely difficult.
The Tour is not quite yet a two-horse race. Richie Porte fought his way up La Mauselaine, another four seconds behind Nibali, never quite pulling back the lead pair, nor getting fully dropped. The Australian is an unknown quantity in terms of leading a team at a Grand Tour, but the next week or so will tell us whether he’s merely the best of the rest, or a genuine contender for the yellow jersey. However, behind Porte, there came a procession of riders whose ambitions will be restricted to holding or gaining a place in the top 10. The bigger climbs to come in the next 10 days will only magnify the differences.
That Nibali’s Astana team are now committed to a defensive strategy was clear by the way they rode the stage. They allowed a very strong break of five convincing stage hunters – Kadri, Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra, Simon Yates and Adrien Petit – go, and seemed unconcerned when their lead went well beyond 10 minutes. It’s not as if Astana were riding along with their hands on the brake levers, but several times in the course of the day, they were overtaken by other teams as they all but freewheeled their way towards the Vosges.
Then, when the race approached the trio of tough finishing climbs, first Katusha (inexplicably and temporarily), then Tinkoff took over pacesetting duties. There were good reasons for Tinkoff to ride at the front – a show of strength demonstrated their commitment to riding for Contador and asserted their desire to impose their will on the race. The tactic also gave their leader the springboard from which to launch his final attack. On the other hand, it did Astana’s job for them, and Nibali looked quite comfortable riding in their slipstream.
It also demonstrated how difficult a job it is going to be to overturn Nibali’s lead – the Italian is climbing well, which means teams might be better off using the guerrilla warfare of unpredictable tactics to beat him, rather than the conventional warfare of putting seven riders on the front of the peloton and riding hard. However, Nibali showed during the opening week (as he did in beating Chris Froome at the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico) that he’s entirely at home when the fight is a tactical one. Contador evidently thinks he can take time back from Nibali by outriding him – out-thinking him might not yet be necessary,
Tinkoff’s pacesetting on the first two climbs burned off all but 25 or so riders, and they delivered Contador to the base of the final climb in perfect position. As the gradient started to bite, Contador’s last remaining team-mate, Nicolas Roche led, followed by Contador, Nibali, Porte and Alejandro Valverde. Contador’s acceleration under the flamme rouge dispatched everybody except Nibali, and the final kilometre became a test of pure endurance, save for the battle between the leading two riders.
Contador, out of the saddle, looked back often. Nibali, sitting down and turning a slightly smaller gear, seemed like he could take everything the Spaniard could throw at him, and stared resolutely at the road just to the side of Contador’s bike.
It’s not certain whether it was Nibali’s spirit or his flesh that weakened first. Whichever one it was, the Tour is now poised for a superb battle. Nibali has plenty of time in hand, but Contador has momentum. Richie Porte, still 36 seconds in front of Contador overall, has a little bit of both. And it’s just as well to remember, the real mountains haven’t even started yet.
Alberto Contador takes the fight to overall Tour de France race leader Vincenzo Nibali on final climb
Images from stage eight of the 2014 Tour de France by Graham Watson