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Vincenzo Nibali could hardly have asked for a gentler introduction to life in the yellow jersey than the opening exchanges of stage 3 of the Tour de France, but the Astana man admitted that he was glad to emerge unscathed from the rain-soaked finale that followed in the centre of London.
Unusually for a stage in the opening week of the Tour, there was no flurry of early attacks in the opening kilometre. Instead, the first break stuck and Nibali’s Astana guard enjoyed a relatively untroubled couple of hours marshalling the front end of the peloton until the sprinters’ teams took up the reins with 80km remaining.
“It was very nervous in the finale but at least the start of the stage was really tranquillo,” Nibali said. “We had a good day and we kept the jersey. The team rode very well for me, so I’m happy.”
The relaxed, almost festive atmosphere that reigned in the peloton threatened to sour on the approach to London. Leaden rain drops fell from the skies and the wide, sweeping bends of the city centre suddenly took an altogether more treacherous guise.
While the Astana team looked to keep Nibali within sight of the front of the peloton and alongside Chris Froome (Sky), Tinkoff-Saxo and Alberto Contador took risk prevention to another level altogether. Guided by Matteo Tosatto, Contador sat at the very head of the peloton in second wheel until deep into the final five kilometres. Contador, Nibali and Froome all avoided being held up by the crash that split the bunch with two kilometres remaining.
The nervous opening days of the Tour are always rife with psychological point scoring – and with too much subtext being read into the actions of the favourites. Nibali dismissed the suggestion that Contador’s positioning was a signal of anxiety.
“I think he just stayed up there to avoid taking risks,” Nibali said. “There were a lot of corners and traffic islands. It was a bit dangerous so he simply wanted to be in front. I stayed a bit further back with [Jakob] Fuglsang, and Froome and Bernhard Eisel were near us too. We were within sight of the sprinters in front of us.”
Nibali holds a two-second lead in the overall standings ahead of his former teammate Peter Sagan (Cannondale), with Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) in third place. It’s a lead that he ought to carry into the next major rendezvous of the Tour – the dash across the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, to Arenberg on Wednesday – although he warned that the first stage on French soil to Lille might not be as straightforward as it seems.
“I’ll think about it [defending yellow on the cobbles] when we get there. It will be a nervous stage tomorrow again before that,” Nibali said.
After his own invention carried him to victory and the maillot jaune in Sheffield, Nibali is aware that emerging unscathed from the Tour’s jaunt across the cobbles will require a dash of good fortune and the safety net of a strong showing from his team.
“I hope I get through it without problems,” he said. “We’ve all tried it and we’re all trying to get through the day without losing time. As a team, we know that we have to stay united and avoid danger as best we can. We know that anything can happen on the day – although we hope it doesn’t.”