Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) managed to defend his overall lead in style during stage 8, the first mountain stage of the 2014 Tour de France, which hit three Vosges climbs in the final 20km. Challenger Alberto Contador and his Tinkoff-Saxo team set a blistering pace over the climbs that cost most riders their spot up front. Only Nibali managed to hang on until the final metres of the summit finish up to La Mauselaine where he lost a seemingly futile three seconds on Contador.
"It was a very hard 1,800 meters as I'm not a very explosive kind of rider. I was waiting for Alberto Contador's attacks and I wanted to respond to them as best as possible. I'd spent a lot of energy and in the last 100 metres he accelerated a lot," Nibali said after the stage.
The Sicilian noticed that Team Sky found a worthy replacement for Chris Froome in his teammate Richie Porte. "Richie Porte is very strong. He's now Sky's big plan and he's sure to do a good race as he's not that far behind," Nibali said. Porte finished a short distance behind the two protagonists, losing only four seconds to Nibali and seven to Contador.
"At the Tour of Romandie Richie Porte was not in a great place but here he has been. Surely he's going to be a man for the overall. And we have to add Valverde to the GC, even if he was a little behind today."
Not only a thunderstorm unleashed its forces on the riders through the Vosges mountain stage but so did Tinkoff-Saxo. In high contrast, Nibali's Astana teammates were unable to stay with him at the end of the stage. Michele Scarponi faded on the final climb and Tanel Kangert was supporting second-placed Jakob Fuglsang, who struggled in the final kilometers while the rain poured down in Gérardmer.
"It was cold, but the bad weather was not a problem for me," Nibali said."I didn't tell Kangert to wait for Fugslang but Scarponi was there with me. I had Scarponi right behind me, I wasn't alone. Maybe you should talk to directors Martinelli or Schefer to discuss this question. My team was working hard during the whole day and at the end, we had Scarponi there with me. After Alberto attacked, it was me that followed. I didn't have a problem. It's just that the attack was very hard."
Nibali was asked who was probably the happiest on Saturday evening: himself, Porte or Contador? "I don't know, Contador grabbed three seconds today. It wasn't the kind of arrival that suited me. In that sort of steep climb in the Vuelta, I lost a lot more, so I’m a lot happier."
On Monday, the Tour de France has another mountaintop finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. Sunday's stage 9 features six climbs but the last one is 43km from the finish line in Mulhouse.
Nibali hinted that his team would let a breakaway go the distance. "It's one for breakaways. For the general classification, I'm not saying nothing will happen, but there's a long way from the top of the final climb to the finish."