EVERY year it is said that the Tour de France doesn’t really start until the mountains.
And although this mantra has been severely tested over the past week, with the grandest of Grand Départs in Yorkshire last weekend, then with a cobbled stage on Wednesday that was instantly declared a classic, the truth of it was borne out once again yesterday as the race entered the Vosges.
The first of three stages in this supposedly minor mountain range might not have had the drama of Wednesday’s schlep across the pavé of north-eastern France. But it offered the first gauge of the qualities that are likely to win this Tour: the strength, ambition and organisation of the contenders’ teams, and the climbing ability of the leaders.
The result: a first, albeit minor, blow for Alberto Contador, who gained a few seconds on Vincenzo Nibali in the yellow jersey, but also the satisfaction of dropping him within sight of the line.
At the finish of the previous day’s stage in Nancy, Michael Rogers, an experienced team-mate to Contador at Tinkoff-Saxo, admitted that the Spaniard’s two-and-a-half minute deficit to Nibali was significant. “I’ll not lie,” said Rogers, “we’d like to be closer. But Alberto had some problems on the cobbles.”
The key thing is that there are no more cobbles, and a lot more climbs. As Rogers said, Contador’s team has a lot of work to do. But yesterday, as soon as the road went up, they set to it, leading up the day’s first two climbs, the Col de la Croix des Moinats and the viciously steep Col de Grosse Pierre.
It was all about setting up Contador for the final climb to the finish, the Côte de La Mauselaine. And when Contador made his move Nibali was his shadow. They opened a gap on the others, though Team Sky’s stand-in leader, Richie Porte, almost made contact.
But Nibali looked comfortable as Contador, out of the saddle and punching the pedals, tried to make life difficult. Then, finally, Nibali seemed to crack, but only in the last 100 metres, losing three seconds.
As Nibali looked down it wasn’t clear whether he was having problems with his legs or his bike. Or neither, as he explained afterwards: “Contador dropped down a gear in the last 100 metres, and I probably should have done the same.”
Behind these two Porte held on for fourth on the stage. It means he is up to third overall, behind Nibali and his Astana team-mate Jakob Fuglsang. Contador, meanwhile, is up to sixth, 2mins 34secs down on Nibali.
The winner of the stage, meanwhile, was the only survivor of the day’s big break, Blel Kadri, for the first French victory of this year’s Tour. It was a brilliant ride by the little-known but highly rated Kadri, particularly as a more fancied Frenchman, Sylvain Chavanel, was with him in the break.
Also in this leading group was half of the British contingent still in the race: Simon Yates, the 21-year-old from Bury who was a very late call-up to his Australian team, Orica-GreenEdge. Yates is a talented climber and this stage looked perfect for him, but when Chavanel jumped clear on the Col de la Croix des Moinats it was Kadri who followed. Yates belatedly responded but couldn’t make contact. He and Chavanel almost held on for third and second, but both were swallowed up by the Contador-led bunch on the short final climb.For a Tour debutant, though, it was an impressive performance, and Kadri admitted afterwards that Yates was the rider he most feared. “I had to distance him as I was worried about him on the final climb,” said the Frenchman. “I think he will have a very good career.”
The other British rider still in the race after the crash-enforced exits of Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome is Geraint Thomas, and he fell on the descent of the Col de Grosse Pierre. He was quickly back up and didn’t lose much time, holding on to 15th overall.
Thomas’s main job, though, is to help Porte. Team Sky has, to use one of Sir Dave Brailsford’s favourite expressions, “re-calibrated”, and they seem to be entering the mountains with an optimistic, even relaxed, approach.
Losing Froome, the defending champion and favourite, was probably a mortal blow to the British team’s chances of winning a third consecutive Tour, but it has had two unintended but welcome consequences for Brailsford and Sky, in lifting the pressure and in creating opportunities for two riders who have been knocking on the door for a few years, Porte and Thomas.
Porte is the leader, with Thomas his deputy, but the order could be reversed if the Tasmanian falters, as he did last year. Then, after finishing second to Froome on the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees, Porte struggled the next day and lost any chance of finishing on the podium. This is the fear with Porte: that he may not avoid the curse of the stage racer – to suffer one terrible day.
While devastated to lose Froome, there is no hiding the sense of relief around Team Sky at no longer being the favourites, with all that entails, in particular shouldering the responsibility of controlling the race.
Instead this is now the job of Nibali’s team, Astana: a daunting prospect with two weeks still to go, including two more days in the Vosges, then the Alps, and finally the Pyrenees. Nibali is not counting his chickens. Porte, he said in Gérardmerlast night, “is a very good rider – we’ve seen that with the way he stays close to Froome in the mountains. He’s clearly in great condition”.
Contador is the big threat, he knows that. “But there are others who’ll be dangerous,” said Nibali.