Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) launched a canny late attack to win stage 2 and take the lead at the Tour de France on Sunday.
The final climb of a hilly day on the job saw a select group of contenders battling for the stage win and the overall lead, with overnight leader Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) having been shed earlier during the hilly 198km race from York to Sheffield.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) tested the group on the final ascent, and then stage favorite Peter Sagan (Cannondale) had a go on the ensuing descent, tucking deeply and taking a slight advantage over the others.
But as the road flattened out it was Nibali who powered away going into Sheffield, and the others hesitated, unwilling to give a tow to rivals for the stage or overall.
Froome and Sagan finally made a go of it, but fell short at the line. Nibali took the stage, two seconds, and the lead, with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) crossing second and Michel Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) third.
“It’s a great day for me,” said Nibali. “I had to give the maximum to win the stage. The legs were really hurting. I was thinking more about winning the stage than to take the jersey today.”
Sagan got himself a second jersey — he began the stage in the white kit of the best young rider, but ended it with the green jersey, which along with stage wins is his goal at this Tour.
“I am happy for Vincenzo because he is my friend. I am happy because I have not crashed and I have the green jersey,” said Sagan. “Everyone watched me. It’s very hard to win a stage because I had all the riders [watching me].”
Asked why he didn’t attack, the new green jersey replied: “Because (Nibali) is my friend. If I followed, everyone would have followed me.”
The break du jour included Armindo Fonseca (Bretagne-Seche Environnement); Biel Kadri (AG2R La Mondiale); Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing); Bart De Clercq (Lotto-Belisol); Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar); Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis); and David De La Cruz Melgarejo (Netapp-Endura).
Absent from the peloton was Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who did not start Sunday’s stage after a heavy crash at the finish of stage 1.
The leaders took a maximum advantage of four minutes, but the chase got serious early and with 70km to race on the hilly course — there were no fewer than nine rated climbs, most of them category 3 or 4 — the gap had been slashed to less than a minute.
On the big climb of the day Kadri headed off alone as the bunch closed in. Lemoine, who was after the mountains jersey worn by Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing), tried but failed to follow. And Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) had a dig out of the peloton, trying to reach the lone survivor of the break.
He got there, but didn’t stay, and Kadri soldiered on alone. With 50km to race he had more than a minute over the remnants of the break, which now included Voeckler.
The chase finally caught him a on the Cat. 3 Côte de Midhopestones, and the pace from that point on pruned the bunch to a couple dozen hardmen with 30km to go. In the group were, among others, Nibali; Contador and Nico Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp); Rui Costa and Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida); Froome, backed by a wealth of Sky teammates; and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
Not there was race leader Kittel, who had lost contact earlier and bid the jersey adieu, sliding to more than seven minutes behind the leaders.
Ten kilometers further along Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) slipped away from the group, taking a couple dozen seconds.
Rolland soon left Péraud behind on an unrated climb, but the bunch wasn’t interested in a solo escape. Cannondale was on point, and Cancellara seemed very eager with 12km and a short, tough cat.-4 ascent remaining.
Over the top Contador and Froome tested what remained of the bunch, but on the other side Sagan lit it up, blazing the descent in full tuck, resplendent in the white jersey of the best young rider.
And then Nibali jumped away, the others hesitated, and all was lost. Sagan and Froome launched a desperate chase, but it was too little, too late, and the Italian road champ took the stage win and the yellow jersey.
“This is good for the head,” said Nibali. “I remained calm all season, to prepare well for the Tour. My objectives don’t change. I want to try to win the Tour. The race is just starting.”
Froome said his goal for the day “was to start up front and avoid problems.”
“It was a complicated stage,” he added. “The support of the public was really incredible. I am tired, so I hope that everyone else is just as tired after a stage like this.”
As for Contador, he too was focused on staying in good position and out of trouble.
“Today was a hard day, with a lot of tension,” he said. “It was important to control the stage. I am satisfied because I found the legs were feeling good in the key moments. It was important to be good position and stay safe than it was to attack. I felt strong, which is a good sign. There are so many people, thousands and thousands, lining the road, it was incredible.”
The Italian now leads the Tour by two seconds over Sagan, with Van Avermaet third in the same time.
Froome sits fifth, Contador eighth, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) ninth, all at two seconds.