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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Vincenzo Nibali finishes up
Italian extends lead at Pla d'Adet
The Tour de France is made up of myriad races all at once. Some riders are battling for the general classification, others on the hunt for stage wins or mountains points, and many more are simply trying to survive.
Only one rider at this Tour, however, seems to be racing against men who are no longer here. With each passing day, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) tightens his grip on the yellow jersey with apparent ease, and each day, the question lingers as to how different his race would have been had Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) not crashed out.
In a - very - rare moment of exasperation last week, Nibali pointed out that he was already in a commanding position on the general classification before Contador's abandon, and that he had mastered the treacherous stage to Arenberg on the day Froome's defence ended prematurely.
After extending his overall lead beyond five minutes on stage 17's summit finish to Pla d'Adet, however, Nibali acknowledged that he would have been forced to adopt a different approach to defending his maillot jaune had Froome and Contador still been in the race.
"Maybe if there were big riders like Alberto Contador and Chris Froome here, I would have had to push more, or at least I would have had to manage the race a little differently, and perhaps been a bit more cautious," Nibali said. "Those riders are very explosive when they attack so you have to be attentive, as I know from racing against them."
In their absence, however, Nibali has been utterly untroubled in the high mountains of the Tour. At La Planche des Belles Filles, Chamrousse, Risoul and once again at Pla d'Adet, he has dealt calmly with the forcing of his rivals before easing away in the closing kilometres to pad out his overall lead.
As at Risoul, only Jean-Christope Péraud could follow Nibali's acceleration five kilometres from the summit, and the Sicilian drew away from the rest of his flagging rivals with disarming facility. He matter-of-factly tagged almost another minute onto his lead over Alejandro Valverde and Thibaut Pinot, and admitted afterwards that he had plenty more in reserve.
"My condition's been very good, but I've never looked to push right to the end, I think that you can see this from my face," Nibali said. "When I get to the finish, I've never given everything because there hasn't been the need. You need to think of the following day's stage, where you never know when you could have a crisis or something. So I've never had to push too much."
It would be tempting to draw comparisons between Nibali's impending Tour win and that of Luis Ocaña in 1973, when the Spaniard was supreme on all terrains in a race unfairly undervalued by many due to the absence of Eddy Merckx. In reality, however, Nibali's has been a tempered domination more akin to that of Miguel Indurain. Each day, he has carefully managed the clock, and tried to leave stage victories to others - future allies, perhaps - as the race progresses.
"There's still a very important day to come to Hautacam but I'm happy with today because my legs responded very well," Nibali said, before adding a note of caution, "when I feel good it's important to try and gain a few seconds, like I did today, to give me a but more tranquillity, because anything could happen tomorrow. I won't say I've got it won until Paris because that's my character."
The short, explosive stage to Pla d'Adet featured four major climbs - the Cols du Portillon, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Val Louron-Azet and Pla d'Adet - all shoehorned into just 125 kilometres of racing. Somewhat isolated the previous day on the Port de Balès, Nibali enjoyed more robust support from his Astana team on the Tour's second Pyrenean leg.
"I knew it would be important to keep as many teammates as possible around me for the finale so I wouldn't have problems in the event of attacks from others," he said. "Yesterday my team wasn't there, but today they were, so I was very happy. [Michele] Scarponi put in a good rhythm on the third climb and then on the final one I had [Tanel] Kangert with me. All told, it was a good day."
So far, it has been a Tour made up exclusively of good days for Nibali, and the situation seems unlikely to change in the four that remain. Even so, he responded with typical caution to an invitation to the residence of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi after the Tour.
"It's true that he sent me a message but I replied that I can only confirm whether I'll come to Palazzo Chigi after the race is won," Nibali said. The prime minister, one imagines, has already saved the date.