Faulted by some after he sat up towards the finish of Thursday’s fourth stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, slipping back and finishing in 29th place, Vincenzo Nibali wasted little time in bouncing back on Friday’s 183 kilometre mountain stage to Villard-de-Lans.
The Tour de France champion attacked over 100 kilometres from the finish, opening daylight on the Col de Grimone and pulling further ahead on the descent.
Recognising the danger but also opportunity, former world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) bridged across, giving him reinforcements.
Together these riders built a lead of over three minutes and while Martin slipped back with 20 kilometres remaining, the others pushed on. Gallopin made his move inside the final four kilometres and got a gap, but Astana’s Nibali was able to attack the others, bridge across to him and push out alone.
Although he looked set for a stage win, Costa managed to claw his way back up and then nip past for the stage win. Nibali had more than enough reason to be happy, though; in addition to turning things right around after Wednesday’s performance and thus showing his rivals that he is ready for the Tour, he also took over as race leader.
“Frankly, I was looking for the stage victory more than the yellow-blue jersey,” he admitted afterwards.
“I think I’m crazy. Yesterday I told Michele Scarponi that I’d try to break away if I was going to feel good. He said ‘you’re mad’. The day went well. I found an interesting company with riders of the caliber of Valverde, Rui Costa, Gallopin and Martin who had the same desire as I had.”
The Italian explained that he had set out hoping to make up for his difficult day on Wednesday, saying that his legs had simply not responded as he had wanted them to and that he backed off when Team Sky raised the tempo.
He added that allergies were part of the issue but that the wet weather on Friday helped to keep the pollen levels down.
“In the past, one of my characteristics has been to go well under the rain but that can happen only with a good condition,” he said. “I needed to have at least one race at the front like today because my last race was quite a long time ago, it was the Tour de Romandie in April, after which I recovered from the early part of the season that didn’t go that well for me.
“I’ve had a nice block of training in Tenerife with the team and I came to the Dauphiné looking for answers. I didn’t get them yesterday, that’s why I went on the offensive today.”
Nibali struggled somewhat in last year’s race, finishing seventh overall. Friday’s display suggests his form is much better than it was then, but he notes that he knows from experience that it is not ideal to be in too good a shape in the Dauphiné.
He’s in a different position now.
“Usually I come to this race looking for condition. Now that I’m in the lead, looking at defending it will be a hard task considering the two difficult stages to come and the strong riders who are still in contention,” he said.
However, he won’t shy away from the chance to take the race. He sees an attraction in the idea, even if he would likely wonder if he was too good too soon.
“A few years ago I realized that no Italian has ever won the Dauphiné. It might be something special for me but I prefer to keep my feet on the ground and take it day by day.”
The race continues Saturday with a difficult mountain stage from Montmélian to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. It includes five category one climbs including another summit finish.
Sunday’s race to Modane Valfréjus will have another climbing finale, meaning that Nibali’s 29 second advantage over closest rival Costa plus his lead over Valverde (30 seconds), Simon Yates (Orica GreenEdge, 35 seconds) and the now-deposed race leader Tejay van Garderen (42 seconds) will be put under pressure.
Whether or not he remains in yellow, though, his performance on stage six will give him considerable encouragement as the days tick down to the start of his Tour defence.