Tour de France leader Vincenzo Nibali is bracing himself for attacks today as the peloton tackles the first of three tough climbing stages, starting with a short but sharp uphill finish in the Vosges Mountains.
Nibali performed strongly in the Tour’s first incursion into the hills in the Peak District in Sheffield last Sunday, where he broke away and took the yellow jersey. The Italian then carved out a much bigger lead over the rough – but flat – cobbled farmtracks of northern France on Wednesday’s stage five.
But now his rivals’ opportunity has come to strike back and leading favourites such as Spain’s Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, together with Sky’s Richie Porte, are all expected to test the Sicilian’s climbing form.
Today’s final triptych of climbs, culminating with the steep 1.8 ascent of La Mauselaine, are probably too short – and too early in the race – to see more than skirmishing. But Nibali recognised after yesterday’s stage that the top riders would soon be locked in battle. “I know they are going to attack, and Alberto is in very good form, you could see that from the way he was racing so hard today,” Nibali said.
“I will have to try and keep him behind me on the road at all times. Tomorrow [Saturday] is going to be a very stressful day.”
Nibali’s climbing ability has netted him two Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013, as well as a third place in the 2012 Tour de France.
But defending champion Chris Froome’s withdrawal has left a huge power vacuum, and the time gaps overall (17 riders are at less than three minutes behind Nibali) are small enough to ensure an aggressive race. As Contador himself put it, “tomorrow [Saturday] I will show exactly what I can do,” while Porte added: “This is a big opportunity for me and I’m going to fight hard every day.”
Yesterday’s complicated finale, with two small climbs in the suburbs of Nancy, proved to be the ideal scenario for the tension between the overall favourites to bubble a little closer to the surface.
A crash seven kilometres from the finish caused American outsider Tejay Van Garderen to lose just under a minute on his rivals, blood dripping from his elbow as he chased hard, and fruitlessly, to regain contact. Then, as the road reared briefly, Contador sent Irish team-mate Nicolas Roche to toughen up the pace at the front of a fast disintegrating peloton.
Nibali was quick to respond to Contador’s move, and when Valverde and Porte started shadowing the Italian, Contador eased back – only for Belgian Greg Van Avermaet and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, neither overall contenders, to dart away over the summit.
With no option of success on today’s hilly stage, both the Belgian and the Slovakian were prepared to make an all-out bid for victory in Nancy. And when the duo stormed down the descent to the finish at break-neck pace, with Sagan crouching forward over his bike’s top tube to ensure as aerodynamic a position as possible, it briefly looked as if the two stage leaders had the measure of a 40-strong chasing group. A brief dig behind by Porte, though, caused the front group to re-merge. Then after a sharp right-hand bend two further crashes within sight of the line had journalists peering at TV screens and frantically consulting race numbers to check on the latest casualties.
Following Van Garderen’s spill, another American overall contender, Garmin-Sharp leader Andrew Talansky pitched into the road in spectacular fashion when another rider swerved in front of him – and Talansky somersaulted to a halt. “He’s OK, not injured but he’s very, very annoyed,” Talansky’s manager Jonathan Vaughters said.
Since the race left Britain, the remainder of this opening week has been dedicated by the Tour to the commemoration of the World War One centenary – in which around 50 pre-war participants perished, including three winners. And for much of yesterday, in an area particularly ravaged by the conflict, the peloton sped past over 40 military cemeteries and monuments.
In the second hour, the Tour passed Vraincourt, the most important US Great War cemetery – 14,246 Americans are buried there. Then after 120 kilometres, at the monument in Douamont Fortress, where 130,000 German and French soldiers are buried, race director Christian Prudhomme and former Tour winners Bernard Hinault and Bernard Thévenet stopped mid-race to lay a wreath.
The Tour finally passed through the battlefields of Verdun, the grave of the WWI writer Alain Fournier, killed aged 27, and the Saint-Mihiel Salient. Finally the 2014 Tour’s second longest stage – 234 kilometres in a five-hour grind – was finally decided by the smallest of margins, as Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mate Matteo Trentin claimed the win by just two centimetres over Sagan.
“It was so close I didn’t know if I’d won or not,” Trentin said. Sagan’s ultra-close defeat cannot have been easy for him to swallow: his worst placing in all seven of the Tour’s opening stages has been fifth, and yesterday was Sagan’s third second place since the race left Leeds last Saturday.
A regular hotel room-mate with Cavendish, currently recovering from his injuries, during the Tour, Trentin said last year, when he took his first Tour stage win in Lyon, that his team-mate’s influence and advice had been crucial to his success. It was all but inevitable, therefore, that Trentin – whose accent, when he speaks English, has a distinct Isle of Man twang – jointly dedicated yesterday’s win to “Cav” and to the team.”