GERARDMER, France (AFP) – Alberto Contador has vowed to continue attacking and Vincenzo Nibali believes him as the Tour de France rivals light up the hilly Vosges region.
Saturday’s 161km eighth stage from Tomblaine to Gerardmer gave a taste of what is to come as Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team turned up the heat on the first two second-category climbs before the Spaniard himself pushed the pace on the final third-category ascent to the finish.
“It was the first mountain stage and I needed to test the others,” said Contador. “My team worked exceptionally well, I tried, I felt good, I gave it a go.”
Although he only took back three seconds on Nibali, his burst strung out the other overall contenders down the mountainside and allowed the 31-year-old to move up 10 places to sixth.
If that was the appetizer, the hors d’oeuvre to the Alpine and Pyrenean stages will likely be Monday’s stage 10 from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles, with seven climbs, including four first-category ascents.
That’s where Nibali expects to face his most significant attacks to date.
“The stage to La Planche des Belles Filles is very important, there’s a very tough climb at the end and riders like (Richie) Porte, (Alejandro) Valverde and of course Alberto will do something,” said the 29-year-old. “Then we will see for the rest of the summit finishes.”
Stage 10′s final climb is 5.9km long with an average gradient of 8.5 percent.
It was where 2013 champion Chris Froome (Sky) won his first Tour stage in 2012, and where that year’s overall contenders set themselves apart from the pretenders.
Nibali, who went on to finish third overall, was fourth that day, seven seconds behind Froome, and beaten only by the Tour winners of the last three years — Cadel Evans (2011) and Bradley Wiggins (2012) who finished second and third, respectively.
As the only other uphill finish before stage 13′s first summit Alpine finish at Chambrouse, it is probably the main stage where time differences will be generated over the next few days.
You just never know…
Certainly Sunday’s 170km ninth stage from Gerardmer to Mulhouse looks manageable for Nibali’s Astana team.
Although there are six categorized climbs, including one first-category, the last is more than 40km before the finish line, leaving riders plenty of time to catch up with the leaders if they’re dropped on either of the last two climbs.
Being dropped before then would likely prove fatal to their overall chances, though.
“It’s more of a stage for a breakaway rather than the overall classification riders,” said Nibali.
“I wouldn’t say nothing can happen, something can always happen, but after the final climb there’s a long way to the finish, so I don’t know. We’ll see during the stage.”
Contador had said after losing more than 2:30 on Wednesday’s cobbled stage to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut that “the Tour starts now.” And he was true to his word on Saturday as his break for the finish line gave the Tour contenders their first uphill test.
“There’s not much between us, I didn’t expect to leave (Nibali) by the side of the road. It wasn’t very long,” said Contador.
“Yes, I wanted to see what shape he’s in. It was a surprise to see him so close behind me.”
He still sits 3:34 behind Nibali but, more importantly, he showed he has the legs for the battle ahead. And Nibali is waiting.
“For sure Alberto will try again, this was only the first uphill finish. It was just a taster,” said Nibali. “Tomorrow (Sunday) will be a nervous day, there will likely be a breakaway, but Monday is more important.
“I’m in great condition. I responded to all Alberto’s attacks and stayed close to him. That’s great — there’s tougher climbs to come.”