PORTE DU HAINAUT, France (VN) — On a day when many expected Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) to deliver some punches, it was the Spaniard who became the punching bag.
Contador didn’t crash, but he ceded 2:35 to race leader Vincenzo Nibali, and his highly touted Tinkoff-Saxo team was out-dueled by Astana on the muddy, wet cobblestones.
“It was an extremely complicated stage,” Contador said. “You had to be cautious at every turn. We lost a lot of time. The most important thing was to avoid crashing. My terrain is still to come.”
Tinkoff-Saxo pulled to the front of the peloton as the pack roared toward the first sector of cobbles, with Daniele Bennati and Matteo Tosatto leading the charge.
On the second sector, however, Contador lost the wheel he was following, and things slowly began to unravel. With defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) already out of the Tour, the “Shark of Messina” could smell blood in the water, and Nibali turned the screws.
With the front pack fracturing under pressure from Astana, Contador went from his typical aggressive posture into defensive mode.
“Nibali was right where he needed to be when the peloton broke up,” Contador said.
Tinkoff-Saxo tried to organize a chase, but Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke and his teammate — eventual stage-winner Lars Boom — powered the lead group, and the gaps were growing instead of shrinking.
Contador crossed the line 37th, 2:54 behind Boom, and he slotted into 19th on GC at 2:37 back. Contador said he lost even more time later in the stage when his rear derailleur was so caked in mud that he couldn’t change gears.
The Italian in the yellow jersey was more surprised than anyone by how the day unfolded.
“I never expected to take so much time on Contador,” Nibali said. “It’s a good gap, but the Tour is long, very long. We have to keep both feet on the ground. Everyone knows Alberto is a tough competitor.”
Spain’s other GC hopeful, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), crashed, but rode on to keep his podium aspirations alive.
“I have some bumps and scrapes to my knee, head, and hip, but it doesn’t seem too serious,” Valverde said. “At least I saved the day.”
Valverde finished ahead of Contador, at 2:28 back, and slipped into 10th at 2:11 back on GC. Valverde crashed hard on the pavé, and was forced to ride the final sections of the race on the bike of Movistar teammate J.J. Rojas.
“When I crashed, I was well positioned within the first 10 riders, but I got tangled up with a rider on my left, broke my derailleur, and went straight to the ground,” Valverde said. “It was a hard blow, but right away Rojas gave me his bike, and it was great to have the team right at my side. I had to race the final 60km, all of the sectors of the pavé, with my seat two and a half centimeters too low, because from there all the way to the line, there was no chance to change the bike. It was full-gas.”