Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) expects the Tour de France’s first mountaintop finish at La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday to offer the first serious indications of the overall contenders’ form after an anxious opening week of racing.
Like his rivals, Nibali has been on the defensive during the nip and tuck action of the Tour’s opening exchanges, where avoiding crashes is the only game in town. The Sicilian duly sits in 7th place, one second off Cadel Evans (BMC) and 11 behind Bradley Wiggins (Sky) as the race enters the Vosges, where the shadow boxing will begin to come to an end.
“Tomorrow is the first summit finish and so it will be the first test,” Nibali said on Friday. “It’s not a very long climb but there could still be some little signals that will give us an indication of how the others are going.”
Though just 6 kilometres in length, the final haul up to La Planche des Belles Filles has an average gradient of 8.5% and briefly pitches up to almost 20% in the final 500 metres, an ideal springboard for one of the yellow jersey contenders to strike his first telling blow.
“There will certainly be a bit of nervousness there tomorrow,” he noted. “We’ll see, we’ll have to keep on eye on things from the start of the day. There’ll certainly be attacks.”
Unlike the Tours of the Armstrong or Indurain eras, however, the first summit finish has not blown the race apart in recent years. Nibali anticipates that trend will continue on Saturday, and he was non-committal about his own possibilities of attacking Wiggins ahead of the strategic Besançon time trial.
“Mah, we’ll have to see,” Nibali said. “Maybe. If there’s a possibility, we’ll take a look at things and assess how the race is set up.”
If the recent Critérium du Dauphiné is any kind of guide, then the race should see Wiggins’ Sky team to the fore as the terrain becomes rougher through the afternoon, but Nibali himself ought not to be wanting for numbers on the final climb.
“Liquigas-Cannondale has certainly brought the strongest team that was available at this moment in time,” he said. “We have Szmyd and Basso, and they’ll be my companions in the mountains. The other guys, like Daniel Oss and Canuti, are the ones who will lead us out at the base of the climbs.”
While Wiggins dominated the Dauphiné, Nibali left the race still chasing after his best form. He floundered on the queen stage over the Col de Joux-Plane, and admitted that he had been struggling ever since his trans-Atlantic trip to the Tour of California. The hope at Liquigas was that a lengthy training camp at the Passo San Pellegrino would put things to rights. Certainly, Nibali has ridden with a quiet assurance through the first week, although he is mindful that the true tests are yet to come.
“Up to now, everything has gone really very well,” he said. “I’ve got through these days ok, they’ve gone by without any problems. It’s just been a question of staying very concentrated because these are still difficult stages. But the condition is really good for now.”