Tour de France 2014: Vincenzo Nibali’s chasers on trial for place on the podium

Italian almost there as Navardauskas pulls off Lithuania’s first stage win

With the Tour de France

The answer to the last major issue in need of resolving in this year’s Tour de France – who will stand on the podium alongside all-but-certain overall winner Vincenzo Nibali – will finally be revealed on Saturday in a 54-kilometre (34-mile) individual time trial between Bergerac and Périgueux.

The name of the 2014 Tour’s champion, barring a disaster, has been increasingly clear since Nibali secured his third stage win in the Alps a week ago. On Friday, despite a late crash splitting the peloton behind stage winner Ramunas Navardauskas of Lithuania, the Italian remained well on track for the final victory.

However, the fight for the places on the podium is still a question of three riders trying to fit on to two spaces – despite three hard-fought stages in the Pyrenees.

France’s Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud and fourth-placed Alejandro Valverde of Spain are separated by the absurdly small gap of 15 seconds after 3,467km of racing.

 

Local pride will play a large part in the outcome of the time trial. A Frenchman on the Tour’s final podium for the first time in 17 years – as seems all but certain – would confirm a healthy renaissance of the host nation’s cycling fortunes.

Should both French riders stay there, it would be the first time there have been two riders from the host nation in the top three since 1984. As for three local riders remaining in the top five – should Romain Bardet stay in fifth ahead of American Tejay van Garderen, as seems likely – that would be a first in nearly half a century, since Raymond Poulidor, Henry Anglade and Jean-Claude Lebaube finished second, fourth and fifth in 1965.

The principle obstacle to this remains the veteran Valverde. The Spaniard has never had a reputation for being a top time trialist, but he is by no means a bad one either. Valverde is the current Spanish national time trial champion – albeit against weak opposition – and in last year’s Tour flat time trial in Normandy, he came home a respectable 13th, 10 seconds ahead of Péraud and over a minute up on Pinot.

However, Valverde has been off-colour throughout the Pyrenees and lost more than 30 seconds to the French duo on Thursday’s high mountain stage, and a top result in a time trial in the third week of a Grand Tour is almost always more about brute strength – or the lack of it – than talent.

“It’s the most important stage of the Tour, all I can do is hope that my legs work out all right,” Pinot said after yesterday’s stage.

“If I’ve got the legs, why can’t I do it? I have to give it everything. The two strongest of the three will be on the podium, that’s all: I’m not feeling nervous, but it would be a pity to be fourth.”

None of the three podium contenders is expected to win the stage, with multiple World Time Trial champion Tony Martin an odds-on favourite, together with race leader Nibali. Martin was spotted by French TV deliberately dropping out of the battle for the stage win late on Friday in order to conserve as much energy as possible for today’s time trial, while Nibali recognised that he would not want to take risks, but that he felt morally obliged to go for the victory.

As the Sicilian put it: “I want to honour the maillot jaune [yellow jersey] for myself, my team and the race.”

Yesterday Nibali’s biggest concern was to avoid a major pile-up in the stage’s rainsoaked finale, which poleaxed the points classification leader Peter Sagan – “it was my own fault” the Slovakian glumly admitted later – and caused the peloton to shatter.

Although Bardet also went down, there were no reports of any rider being seriously injured. Equally crucially, the crash took place with less than three kilometres to go – after which race regulations state all riders in the bunch are awarded the same time if there is a crash. However, apart from being the nail in the sporting coffin for Sagan’s chances, the crash was probably also the last ingredient needed to ensure Navardauskas could solo to Lithuania’s first Tour stage win.

The 26-year-old was a last-minute replacement in the Garmin-Sharp squad after Scot David Millar was controversially dropped, but the Lithuanian insisted yesterday that Millar bore him no ill will.

“Dave had been ill before the Tour and the team decided we had better send a healthy team”, said Navardauskas, a gentle giant of a rider nicknamed “the Honey Badger”.

“Before the Tour de France, I got a nice email from Dave, saying if somebody has taken a place for me, I would be glad if it was you and make sure you get a win for me.”

Already a leader and stage winner of the Giro d’Italia, “the Honey Badger” duly gobbled up his stage victory after riding away over a short but sharp climb some 13km from the finish  and digging deep to ensure he stayed away.

“I had no idea what was happening behind me, but I remembered a lot about what happened to [team-mate] Jack Bauer [the Garmin-Sharp rider caught on the line at Nimes by the bunch after a 222km breakaway] so I gave it everything and hoped.”

Millar took to Twitter yesterday as the Lithuanian sped through one waterlogged corner after another with the pack always no more than a few hundred yards behind. He confidently predicted: “If anyone can do this, it’s Ramunas”.

A few minutes later, the Scot was proved right.

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