All hope of Vincenzo Nibali defending his title vanished before the race’s mid-point but the Shark of Messina produced a champion’s ride to solo to victory on La Toussuire. Behind him, Nairo Quintana‘s attack exposed a chink – but probably no more than that – in Chris Froome‘s armour ahead of tomorrow’s final battle on Alpe d’Huez.
The stage had started in feisty fashion, with Alberto Contador launching the first attack of the day on the opening climb. Nibali and Alejandro Valverde were also active early on, as Froome’s teammates fell away, leaving him with only Wout Poels for company for much of the stage. But after Nibali attacked on the Col de la Croix de Fer, setting off after leader Pierre Rolland, the rest of the GC group were content to ride tempo until Quintana’s attack 5km from the finish dispensed with Contador and Valverde, with Froome digging deep to finish 30 seconds down although, with his deficit still 2:38, the Colombian’s hopes of yellow remain slender.
Rider of the day
After being crushed by Froome on the first Pyrenean summit finish on stage 10, many people (myself included) wondered aloud whether that made Vincenzo Nibali the favourite for the Vuelta a Espana. But defending the Tour title is a serious endeavour and Nibali is a serious rider. With team manager Alexander Vinokourov suggesting he find the door marked ‘exit’, he could have been forgiven for tearing off his dossards and walking away. But Nibali’s response has been that of a champion. He rode through some demoralising results throughout the middle week and has found his form and his climbing legs in the Alps. Arguably, he’s the strongest rider in the top ten right now.
If the timing of his race-winning attack today was questionable in some people’s eyes (see below), the strength in his heart and his legs was unequivocally not in question. He caught Rolland at the summit of the Col du Mollard, cooperated with him until the beginning of La Toussuire, then sailed serenely into the distance. With the smell of blood – or, at least, stage victory – in his nostrils, the Shark of Messina gave no quarter. He is now fourth on GC, and if he has one more big attack left in his legs the bottom step of the podium remains a possibility.
Four things we noticed
1. A grey area. Vincenzo Nibali made his decisive move 5km from the summit of the day’s HC climb, the Col de la Croix de Fer, just as Froome was dropping back examining a problem with his bike. Should he have attacked while the yellow jersey was in mechanical trouble – traditionally a no-no? The TV coverage shows Nibali taking a long look back before accelerating away, although the Sicilian claims he could not see Froome was in difficulty. This seems to be a half-truth at best. If he thought Froome was cracking, he was fully entitled to attack. If, however, he knew that Froome was having bike troubles, it’s a more dubious action.
Even if he did know, Nibali was eight minutes back from Froome and no threat to him, so arguably he was entitled to attack. But what if Nibali’s move had prompted Contador to respond to protect his position, in turn triggering accelerations from Quintana and Valverde to cover themselves? That’s a rather different scenario. Of course, it’s easy to pick the bones out of a spur-of-the-moment decision from the comfort of an armchair with the benefit of TV replays, multiple camera shots and commentary.
Froome was unhappy after the stage and exchanged a few choice words with Nibali. To be honest, I can see the argument from both sides. But I suspect Nibali’s move actually benefitted Froome, as it helped to nullify the action in the GC group and meant there was one fewer rider to attack the yellow jersey on La Toussuire. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
2. Running repairs. Romain Bardet had a potential second victory in his sights as he pursued Rolland off the Col du Mollard but was delayed by a mechanical issue on the descent which saw him trying to fix his front derailleur first with a series of kicks then by hand, all while negotiating a fast, twisty descent with sheer drops. He was understandably hesitant thereafter and eventually stopped in the valley below to change his bike, at which point he was swallowed up by the yellow jersey group. What might have been. Nonetheless, barring a disaster on Alpe d’Huez tomorrow, he will finish at least ninth, as the best placed Frenchman and possibly with the polka dot jersey. Not so shabby.
3. G-forced. Geraint Thomas joked after the stage that he had been hoping to save his bad day until Monday. But it was not to be. In truth, he has been struggling ever since his untimely somersault into a telegraph pole on the descent into Gap on Monday. We may never know quite to what extent that crash has hindered him this week, but his fairy-tale Tour came crashing back to Earth as he was shelled early on the Croix de Fer and rolled in 22 minutes behind Nibali, tumbling from fourth to 15th on GC. That shouldn’t take away from his immense effort and achievements during this race, but he’ll no doubt be disappointed that a top ten finish now looks beyond him. As am I.
4. Spitting distance. Some cynics have questioned whether Sky’s claims of fans punching, spitting and throwing cups of urine at their riders have been part of some conniving plot to deflect attention from doping claims by some fans and certain sections of the media. Such an elaborate web of lies has always seemed rather fanciful. Maybe now that Danish TV has shown images of ‘fans’ (I use the term advisedly) by the roadside clearly spitting at Froome today, they will finally be silenced. And when a French star such as Nacer Bouhanni is quick to back Sky with a public condemnation of such actions, maybe attitudes will start to change. Sadly, I doubt they will. I will say this: anyone who comes to any sporting event to spit at competitors – or who defends those who do – forfeits the right to call themselves a fan as far as I’m concerned.
Stage 19 result
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 4:22:53
2. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +0:44
3. Chris Froome (Sky) +1:14
4. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +2:26
5. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) same time
1. Chris Froome (Sky) 78:37:34
2. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +2:38
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +5:25
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) +6:44
5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) +7:56
6. Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) +8:55
7. Mathias Frank (IAM) +12:39
8. Bauke Mollema (Trek) +13:22
9. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) +14:08
10. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) +17:27
Points leader: Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).
King of the Mountains leader: Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Best young rider: Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Team classification: Movistar.
Link: Official race website