Nibali takes Tour de France stage win as Quintana nibbles at Froome’s lead

British rider remains 2:38 ahead of Colombian as defending champion Nibali enjoys change in fortunes

 

This climb holds mixed memories for Chris Froome and, as well as his confrontation with the stage winner Vincenzo Nibali at the finish, the final six kilometres here are probably not ones he will recall with affection after a late assault from Nairo Quintana cost him 32 seconds and reminded the field that the Sky leader is not unassailable.

Up until then, it seemed as if Froome had got through the worst of the day – he had survived an early onslaught that left him without team-mates, a blocked back wheel, and a roadside spectator spitting at him – but the complexion of the day, and just possibly the entire race, changed when Quintana made his first incisive move of the three weeks.

The Colombian chose his moment perfectly, launching his effort from a little way back in the group and forcing Froome to swerve around other riders in order to launch a pursuit. Famously, this climb was where Sky called Froome to order in 2012 when he briefly left his team-mate Bradley Wiggins behind, but here he faced a team issue of a different kind.

It has rarely happened in this Tour, but now he was on his own, as his last remaining team-mate Wouter Poels had just slipped back and this was the day when Geraint Thomas’s efforts finally caught up with him – he lost 22 minutes and slipped from fourth to 15th – and the Welshman was not able to offer support for almost the first time since the race left Utrecht.

“I was worried, but I didn’t panic, I didn’t start stressing or flogging myself,” Froome said. “I just kept it in time trial mode. I couldn’t go super deep because of [Saturday’s stage] but I didn’t want to give Nairo much time.”

It was a classic pursuit match between two riders with contrasting styles, the impassive Colombian versus Froome, who climbs with his face and neck working painfully, his head constantly dipping and falling. The gap opened slowly – if never at a rate that suggested the race lead might change – and at the line, Quintana was out of sight and had gained 30 seconds.

“I was hoping to get a bigger gap on Froome,” he said, “and to be honest it wasn’t as much as I wanted, he fought back harder than I expected.”

His deficit is 2:38; it is, as the French saying goes, a little and a lot at the same time: a reasonable margin of safety but no more.

Quintana had been surprisingly restrained for much of the three weeks, but he was not the only rider to gain a new lease of life. Nibali put the Astana team to work from the off, with the Col du Chaussy tackled as soon as the flag dropped, and by the summit, with most of the stage left, Froome had only Poels at his side with Sky spread to the four winds. Fortunately for the Kenyan-born Briton, a truce was declared, and his team-mates regained contact, but it was a brief respite.

On the Croix de Fer, it was Nibali’s Astana who again took up the running, with Nibali making his move just before the gradient steadied a couple of kilometres from the summit, as Froome stopped briefly to deal with a problem with his gears. It was uncannily similar to Romain Bardet’s attack the previous day when Nibali’s team-mate Jakob Fuglsang was felled by a motorbike, but the Italian said he saw nothing untoward.

Froome could afford to give Nibali considerable leeway, as he started the stage with an eight minute deficit and, once unleashed, Nibali used his descending skills to overhaul the lone leader Pierre Rolland to be set fair for victory. This has been a difficult Tour, he said afterwards, and it has seen tensions rise with his boss at the Astana team, Alexander Vinokourov, but the pair were predictably all smiles at the finish.

Froome has only Saturday’s brief stage over the Croix de Fer to l’Alpe d’Huez to survive, but at just 110.5km its brutal brevity will suit Quintana down to the ground.

The Croix de Fer is tackled in the opposite direction to Friday, but omitting the Col du Mollard, before descending the Col du Glandon via the road the race ascended on Thursday. The riders would be justified in feeling they have seen enough of the Belledonne chain after three uphill visits in three days, but after they have left it the Alpe awaits with its legendary hairpins.

There is much to play for. If Froome and Quintana look relatively secure in first and second, and Alberto Contador looked exhausted at the finish, Nibali has a chance of overhauling Alejandro Valverde for the third slot on the podium, and the polka-dot jersey is still up for grabs, with France’s Bardet fighting manfully for points on every climb, but ending the day just three ahead of Froome.

The Alpe witnessed the most serious blip in Froome’s largely serene road to victory in 2013, when he suffered from “hunger knock” – as cyclists call hypoglycaemia – close to the top of the climb after being unable to take food from his support car, which had suffered an electrical fault due to a spilt coolbox. That was a freak event, but a reminder that no maillot jaune is ever secure until Paris is reached. The Champs Elysees are 24 hours from the top of the Alpe and if Quintana gets another whiff of weakness, anything could happen.

(Guardian service)

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