Thursday’s first Tour de France mountaintop finish at the Vosges ski resort of La Planche des Belles Filles will reveal the true ambitions and true form of all the overall contenders and their rivals, both within their own teams and across the peloton. We could see the Team Ineos leadership conundrum resolved, understand if Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Urán have the form to win the Tour de France and better understand who has been hiding and who has been suffering since the Grand Départ in Brussels.
For Vincenzo Nibali, the seven-kilometre, 8.7 per cent climb and its even steeper new finish on dirt roads, will be a watershed moment as the Sicilian understands and decided his goals and strategy for the rest of the race.
A strong performance and no major time loss to the likes of Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot, Quintana and Bardet could be enough to persuade Nibali to fight on in the hope of holding his form and a place in the top 10 all the way to Paris. In contrast, any sign of physical or psychological weakness, and any time loss could see Nibali throw in the GC towel and decide to focus on winning prestigious mountain stages. That could include losing close to 30 minutes so that he has the freedom to join breakaways during the major mountain stages in the Pyrenees and then the Alps.
After making the Giro d’Italia his primary goal for 2019, the Tour de France has always been a secondary objective for the Shark of Messina, partially to appease his Bahrain-Merida team and partially to test his ability to handle two Grand Tours in the same season.
Nibali is expected to move to Trek-Segafredo for the 2020 season and so he may also opt to avoid going too deep for a good overall classification, so he can recover well during the winter for what are expected to be the final two seasons of a long career.
Nibali often races on instinct and the direction of his Tour de France will be decided by how he feels on the climb to the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. After losing just 16 seconds to Team Ineos in the team time trial, Nibali is currently 21st overall, 1:01 down on race leader Julian Alaphilippe but only 26 behind Bernal.
"We’ll see how I feel during the stage and on the climb, see what happens and then decide as a consequence," Nibali said simply after finishing Wednesday’s fifth stage to Colmar in the same time as the winner Peter Sagan, careful not to lose time or waste any valuable energy that will be needed on stage 6.
Nibali is conscious that he could become stuck between a rock and a hard place. "My fear is that if I ride for the GC, I’ll be okay at the start of the Tour but then I might fade in the third week," he said in Brussels.
"I might do okay in the GC but then be unable to win a stage. Sometimes it’s better to focus on one thing. A stage win at the Tour de France is a big deal - two or three even more so."
Coach Slongo is equally relaxed but has a more focused vision of how Nibali’s Tour de France will unfold during and after stage to La Planche des Belles Filles his preference for ‘we’ a clear sign of the symbiosis between Nibali and his coach.
"I think the first summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles will be the watershed, so to speak of, the point where we’ll be able to understand if we’re competitive for the GC or not. From that moment, we’ll decide and act accordingly," Slongo confirmed to Cyclingnews.
"I want to see how he responds to the work we’ve done in recent weeks, after the Giro d’Italia. We don’t have references against his rivals from June because he didn’t do the Dauphiné or Suisse, so we're a little in dark. The big lights will be turned on very soon and there will nowhere to hide, for us and everyone else."
Nibali and Slongo know the climb of La Planche des Belles Filles well. Nibali won the stage in 2014, on the way to taking overall victory in the Tour de France.
"It’s a bit longer, with a bit of gravel roads at the end. It’s not a very long climb but you have to make a big effort, a significant effort," Slongo warned.
"The stage is a bit different this year because there are a lot of climbs before the final ascent. It’s a real mountain stage, a real test."