Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) was one of the happy few able to withstand the ferocious pace set by Team Sky on the final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 7 of the Tour de France, and the Sicilian ended the day in 3rd place overall, 16 seconds off the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins.
In recent seasons, the opening mountaintop finish of the Tour has tended to be a rather tentative affair, and beforehand Nibali said that he anticipated more of the same this time around. Instead, in an echo of the extremes of the Lance Armstrong era, Sky set to work from the foot of the climb and scattered the peloton to the four winds.
"It was a big effort," Nibali said as he propped himself against a barrier shortly after crossing the line. "They made an infernal rhythm until the end. The tempo was really high from the bottom to the top."
Just six kilometres in length, La Planche des Belles Filles had a far greater impact on the Tour than anyone could have anticipated, and inside the final two kilometres, only five men remained in contention – Nibali, Cadel Evans (BMC), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and the Sky pair of Wiggins and Chris Froome.
"I didn't expect such a big selection," Nibali admitted. "The first mountain is always a bit of an unknown, and often people are a bit worried about it. Sky really did something big, and it was a good selection, but that’s good for the stages to come."
Although Nibali succeeded in hitching a ride on the Sky locomotive to the summit, he was unable to jump the train as the road reared up to almost 20% in the final 200 metres. He couldn't match Evans’ initial acceleration, and came home in 4th place, 7 seconds down on the eventual stage winner Froome, and 5 behind Wiggins and Evans.
"In the finale, I did want to have a go in the sprint but it was very hard because we were all stretched out metres from one another," he said.
Such was the intensity of the Sky tempo that Nibali’s primary concern was simply to hold the wheels as the kilometres ticked down and the pace climbed still higher. "We were all on the limit," he said. "On the first summit finish, a lot of people suffer, and I suffered a little bit myself, but it’s always like that on the first big climb of Grand Tour for me."
Nibali now lies 3rd overall, 16 seconds behind Bradley Wiggins and encouraged by his response to the opening salvoes in the mountains, particularly given his travails at the Critérium du Dauphiné. While Wiggins and Evans will expect to put time into Nibali on mountains the time trial, the Italian has been bullish about his chances of upsetting the expected duopoly this July.
In Saturday morning’s LÉquipe, Nibali was afforded a full-page splash in which he declared "Wiggins doesn’t impress me." Asked if he had revised his opinion after spending the afternoon at such close quarters to the Englishman, Nibali allowed himself a smile.
"My impression was that the strongest acceleration came from Froome and not from Wiggins," he said.