REIMS, France (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) knows the attacks are coming.
After blitzing the cobblestones Wednesday to take invaluable gains against his main rivals, the Italian needs to look no further than the first climbing stages looming in the Vosges Mountains this weekend.
“I know my rivals will be coming for me,” Nibali said Thursday. “I have a nice advantage, and I can use that to my benefit, but I know my rivals will be aiming for my yellow jersey.”
The numbers tell the story: Richie Porte (Sky) at 1:54 down; Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) at 2:05; Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) at 2:11; Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) at 2:37. Nibali will be riding a cushion into the Vosges and most likely into the Alps.
Some say that this Tour is now Nibali’s to lose, but no one will know for sure where everyone stands until the first time the road tilts uphill.
Nibali finished safely in the bunch Thursday, a day after blowing the lid off the Tour in Wednesday’s dramatic stage across the cobblestones of northern France.
After defending Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) crashed out of the race Wednesday, Nibali was riding on eggshells all day Thursday. There was no shortage of crashes over narrow, rain-slicked roads in France’s champagne country, with Xabier Zandio (Sky) and Jesus Hernández (Tinkoff-Saxo) both crashing out.
“Today was very nervous and the stress was extreme. The team protected me well, and they’re doing everything to protect me from a crash,” Nibali continued. “A crash right now would be disastrous. We saw what happened to Froome, and it’s too bad he’s out of the race, but that shows that it can happen to anyone.”
There were no major changes in the GC, with Nibali and Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang, second at two seconds, hogging the top of the leaderboard. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) were among the top riders to lose time after crossing the line in a group at 59 seconds back when the bunch split late in crosswinds.
The Tour shifts gears this weekend, as the route turns into the hilly, potentially explosive Vosges Mountains straddling the Rhone Valley along the French-German border. Though not nearly as long as the climbs waiting in the Alps, the narrow roads, potentially bad weather, and short but steep pitches will certainly provide the first measure of where the GC favorites stack up in the climbs.
Friday’s seventh stage traces rolling terrain into Nancy in what’s likely the last chance for sprinters until next week. Saturday’s and Sunday’s stage feature the hardest climbs so far through the 2014 Tour, but it’s Monday’s 10th stage, ending atop the Belle Filles summit, that Nibali can expect the first shots across the bow.
“The stage to Belles Filles is the first real hard stage we’ll face, and I know riders like Contador and Porte will try to attack me,” Nibali said. “I will not just sit back. If I have good legs, who is to say I will not attack as well? What’s sure is I can use my lead to my advantage.”
With Froome out of the picture, the onus turns to Tinkoff-Saxo and Contador to take it to Nibali. Team boss Bjarne Riis said it’s obvious what they’ll have to do.
“If we want to win, we have to attack. It’s not complicated,” Riis told reporters at the start Thursday. “We lost some time [Wednesday], but the important thing is that Alberto did not crash. It won’t be easy, but we are going to try. Alberto is a fighter.”
With all eyes on Contador, other teams will be trying to work that to their advantage. Astana will have to be on their toes to avoid to falling into the same trap that Contador succumbed to during last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné. The Spaniard carried the leader’s jersey into the final mountain stage, but cautiously marked Froome, opening the door for Talansky and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) to ride away with the race.
It won’t be just Contador attacking; it will be everyone with hopes of winning the yellow jersey.
“To make up the differences to Nibali, you cannot just attack in the last five kilometers. It’s going to take some big moves,” said Lotto-Belisol manager Mark Sergeant. “If you want to win the Tour, you have to put pressure on Nibali and Astana. If you wait until the Pyrénées, it’s too late.”
With Van den Broeck riding well Wednesday over the cobbles, slotting into sixth at 1:45 back, Lotto-Belisol is ready to test Nibali’s grip on yellow.
“It’s a similar situation to the Dauphiné, and Jurgen was in there with Talansky, and Contador and Froome were looking at each other, and Talansky won,” Sergeant said. “It’s dangerous to play that game.”
Nibali is ready for all takers. One of the most fearless riders in the bunch, it’s going to take a lot to rattle the Italian. With his stage win coupled with Wednesday’s coup on the cobbles, his confidence is growing by the day.
“I am calm now because I know the team is supporting me,” Nibali said. “Things have gone really well so far, and with the advantage we have, we will be able to carry the yellow jersey into the climbing stages. It’s better to have the jersey than to be chasing it.”