Tour war of attrition back on French soil

Christopher Gargett

Christopher Gargett

First published in Cycling column
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IN week one, the Tour de France lost its big favourite when Chris Froome crashed out, despite attempts to carry on with broken bones.

In week two, the Tour de France lost its second big favourite when Alberto Contador crashed out, despite attempts to carry on with a broken bone.

In week three, Vincenzo Nibali (third favourite at the start of the race) will be praying that he doesn’t became part of a dramatic and bizarre series of events.

In last week’s column I stated that the second week would see the start of the mountain stages and that the overall leaderboard would start to take shape with Team Saxo-Tinkoff rider Contador using his extraordinary climbing skills to attack the Yellow Jersey of Astana rider and race leader Nibali.

Saturday’s stage, with a short, steep finish, saw my prediction come true with Contador launching a stinging attack in the closing metres to claim back a handful of seconds from his main rival.

The remaining race was set up to be a showdown between the two riders – could Nibali defend his two-minute lead over the Alps and Pyrenees?

And then, on the following stage, fate and, if some in the peloton are believed, a bit of rather iffy bike handling on a dangerous descent intervened and brought Contador’s hopes crashing onto the tarmac.

The Spaniard valiantly tried to continue but the pain proved too much and a later diagnosis of a broken tibia showed why.

This is one of the reasons why I love road racing. Contador would have known there was something seriously wrong but he carried on regardless, as much to say thank you for the efforts of his team-mates who tried to pace him back to the main bunch, as to keep himself in the hunt.

For all the talk of Yorkshire’s “dangerously narrow” roads before the race began, it is those of France that have caused the most havoc, resulting in a host of abandonments – much fancied American Andrew Talansky of Team Garmin-Sharp being another high profile casualty of the second week.

Tuesday’s rest day brought much needed respite from the road and harsh weather conditions, and when racing resumed on Wednesday it was to clear blue skies and rising temperatures.

On Thursday, Nibali retained his two-minutes-plus lead from de-facto Team Sky leader Richie Porte and was looking strong as the race headed into the Alps.

One point of note is the prominence of young French talent in the top ten.

The French have not had a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and the intervening years have brought only the consolation of stage wins and King of the Mountains winners.

But it looks as though that some real Gallic talent has been unearthed and, in Roman Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, they will have some serious contenders in years to come.

So who are the riders to watch as the Tour de France heads into the seriously high mountains and the final week?

Vincenzo Nibali

The current race leader and, with a two-minute buffer, the big favourite to take the win in Paris. The Italian can climb, descends excellently and isn’t too shabby in the time trial either.

Barring a mishap or outstanding ride from someone like Richie Porte it is hard to look beyond Nibali for the overall victory, but then I said that about Froome - then Contador.

Richie Porte

Would have been delighted with the prospect of second at the start of the race and this may be his undoing.

Will Porte want to risk attacking Nibali for the race win with the possibility of “blowing up” when he could defend his podium spot?

For the sake of the race, I hope Porte goes for it – he won’t have a better chance while at Team Sky (where he could not expect to be a team leader again) and the very long, less severe climbs of the Alps do suit him. He also time trials well so can’t be written off yet.

Alejandro Valverde

Controversial and unrepentant ex-doper, the Spaniard can be an explosive rider when he wants to be, usually climbs well and does have a good turn of speed.

Also has a strong team with him with his Movistar outfit packed with climbing talent. At 34 time isn’t on his side so may well fancy giving the race a go.

If he and Porte can isolate Nibali from his team and alternate their attacks they may have a chance of cracking the Italian.
 

Whatever happens I’m sure there’ll be a few more twists and turns before the race hits the Champs Elysees on Sunday week.

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