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This jersey is mine. That’s what Vincenzo Nibali appeared to be saying on the first uphill finish of this year’s Tour, with the Italian matching all attacks on his Maillot Jaune and riding in such a way as to try to intimidate his competition.
The Astana rider latched onto each move by his rivals, riding much of the steep final climb in the saddle. While the main aggressor Alberto Contador fought with his bike, spending much of the climb dancing on the pedals, Nibali rode close to him and appeared completely calm.
The only crack appeared when his legs buckled inside the final 200 metres. That moment enabled Contador to open a three second lead by the line but with all of Nibali’s other rivals conceding time, the day was a success for the rider who has led since the end of stage two.
He gained four seconds on Sky’s Richie Porte, eight on Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale), 16 on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and 20 on Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team).
Others such as Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Michael Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) were even further back, losing between 35 seconds and two minutes 17 seconds.
The bad news for his rivals is that Nibali said that the climb wasn’t a good one for him. “It was a finish that wasn’t very good for my characteristics, it was too explosive, too hard,” he insisted. “But I was able to follow him [Contador]. He got a gap at the end as his attack was very hard.”
Nibali finished third in the 2012 Tour and is a past winner of the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia. While he was off the pace in the Critérium du Dauphiné, he built up specifically for the Tour de France and came into the race expecting to be good.
He posted a warning to his rivals when he clipped away at the end of stage two, winning the stage and taking over the yellow jersey. Since then he has defended that well, and gained time on all of his rivals when he finished third on the cobblestones of stage five.
They will hope that he weakens in the upcoming mountain stages. He has no intention of doing so, however, and will aim to maintain or even increase his gap.
Sunday’s stage is a tough one due to the six categorised climbs which rear up on the roads between Gérardmer and Mulhouse. These include the category one ascent of Le Markstein and two category two ascents. The last climb peaks out 43 kilometres from the finish, though, and so it remains to be seen what effect – if any – it will have on the race.
“Maybe we will have a breakaway like today,” said Nibali, when asked what he expected to happen. “But it is the Tour de France and everything can happen in a stage. We have to wait until tomorrow to see.”
A day that is more likely to cause problems for any weakening riders is Monday’s race from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles. That includes a category one uphill finish and will present a clearer picture about how tight Nibali’s grip is on the lead.
It seems clear that Contador will be one of his top riders; Porte too could challenge, although he seemed a little below the level of the Italian and the Spaniard today.
Nibali was asked who he believed would have been happier with the stage two result, Contador – who gained those three seconds – or Porte, who received confirmation that he is in strong form after what has been a frustrating season.
“I can’t tell you,” said the Maillot Jaune. “The gaps were only seconds and that is not so important for this race.”
He was clear though that he considers Porte a threat. “He was not in good condition at the Tour of Romandie, but is a very, very good rider. He has long been riding at the side of Froome, so you have to be a good rider to be there.
“I think that this Tour de France could be a good one for him, but he is not the only one. I also saw Valverde climbing well, although he lost a bit in the last metres.”
Nibali knows that plenty of climbing is yet to be done. Two weeks remain in the race and after the Vosges the riders will battle it out in the Alps and the Pyrenees. He’s feeling good, though, and has a commanding lead at this point.
His team-mate Jakob Fuglsang is next closest to him, despite losing time on stage eight; he is one minute 44 seconds back, with Porte at 1 minute 58 and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Valverde and Contador all over two minutes back.
The race is far from over but, as the first mountains stage showed, the Sicilian is comfortable in the spotlight. He’s no intention of leaving it any time soon.