Tour de France 2014:Vincenzo Nibali goes on attack to prove it’s not just Chris Froome v Alberto Contador

Champion of Italy takes race lead but it’s a good day for Brailsford and Sky

Sheffield

Vincenzo Nibali provided a timely reminder that the battle for the 2014 Tour de France is much more than a duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador when the 2013 Giro d’Italia winner ripped out of the peloton close to the finish yesterday to take a hard-earned stage win and the yellow jersey to boot.

The first Italian to lead the Tour since Rinaldo Nocentini in 2009, and third in the 2012 Tour behind Bradley Wiggins and Froome, Nibali pointed repeatedly at his Italian national champion’s jersey as he crossed the line: his way, he said, “of dedicating my victory to the Italian tifosi [fans]”.

However, given this stage through the Yorkshire Dales – watched by millions of roadside spectators – was the most difficult start to the Tour de France in nearly 40 years, Nibali’s victory was also a superb way of reminding the world at large that he cannot be ruled out of the battle for yellow in Paris.

“We all know that Froome and Contador are the big favourites, but I will do my best to get a good overall result too,” the Astana rider said.

“It was a fabulous day for me, I led a good action. It was difficult. There was a lot of headwind. I had the luck to attack at the right moment.

“But let’s take things day by day. It’s my first ever yellow jersey, my first stage win in the Tour de France, and I can be happy with that.”

 

Nibali wanted to play down his chances, saying he had not expected to triumph so soon in the Tour. But the 29-year-old Sicilian’s strongest suit is surprise attacks, and yesterday he made a move that both caught out his rivals – among them Froome and Contador – and also showed that his attempt to become Italy’s first Tour winner since Marco Pantani in 1998 is utterly serious.

Nibali’s move came at the end of an exceptionally tough stage, which featured nine classified climbs and 3,000 metres of vertical climbing – so hard that, by the foot of the final ascent, the short but exceedingly steep so-dubbed Côte de Jenkin Road in the Sheffield suburbs, the peloton had been shredded to just 80 riders.

Top names in trouble included the 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck, finally more than a minute back, and Joaquim Rodriguez, who was third overall last year but lost nearly 15 minutes.

Contador was the first to test the water, putting in a sustained acceleration which Froome instantly shadowed, and then in a mirror move  Froome dug deep on the pedals in the final metres of the climb.

Perhaps significantly, the Briton’s move did not succeed in letting him go clear – unlike stage two of last year’s Tour, where he launched a brief but searing attack on the last climb in Ajaccio, Corsica. On the plus side for Team Sky fans, Froome’s repeated pursuit of Nibali as the finish loomed indicates, at the very least, rising form.

 

Asked by French TV if he had wanted to take the leader’s jersey, Froome said that was not the case.

“The objective is always to be in front and have no problems,” he said. “It was a very hard day but the home crowd support was great. I’m tired, but I hope everyone’s tired after a day like today.”

If stress levels were already high because of the narrow roads and hard climbs, the huge number of spectators, while indicating fast-rising levels of support for British cycling, also frayed more than a few nerves. The problem was not so much – as it often is on mountain stages on the Tour – that spectators tried to run alongside the riders. Instead, the millions of fans spilt into the roads, sometimes leaving the narrowest of gaps for the peloton to forge a pathway through.

“The crowds were amazing,” said Sky’s Geraint Thomas, but added: “It was dodgy at times. The worst thing is when people have got their backs to the peloton taking selfies.

“I had a few of those and they don’t see us coming and are stood in the road and it is very dodgy. If they want to do that they should stand on a wall. It’s the new pain in the arse, that’s for sure.”

French rider Thomas Voeckler also sounded a note of caution about overenthusiastic crowds. “People really need to stay on the side of the road with their strollers and children,” he said.

Asked if it was a good day for Sky, the team’s general manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, responded categorically. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s 100 per cent good, because Nibali got two seconds [advantage] and if [his team] Astana want to defend the yellow jersey they will have to work for it.”

Brailsford played down concerns about Richie Porte, Froome’s main lieutenant, after the Tasmanian crashed and hurt his elbow.

The Sky manager added that while the day had been challenging, he was delighted with the level of public support the Tour was arousing in Britain.

“The crowds were unbelievable. They were very enthusiastic, very supportive, and it was like a wall of noise out there. But the riders had to concentrate more,” Brailsford said.

“The worst-case scenario is that everyone steps back except a small child is left right there in front of [the riders]. But in the main it was brilliant. You can’t fault it.”

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