Italian's grip tightens on maillot jaune
Another day, another mountain range and still no moments of undue distress for Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at this Tour de France. After going on the offensive in the Vosges and the Alps, the Sicilian was happy to maintain a controlling brief on the race's first stage in the Pyrenees, but still came away with an ever tighter grip on the maillot jaune.
Nibali's lead over Alejandro Valverde is unchanged – the Spaniard remains 4:37 down in second place – but a combination of Movistar's forcing and Thibaut Pinot's accelerations on the Port de Balès has seen a pair of other rivals fade further from the picture.
Romain Bardet lost 1:50 to Nibali and slipped to 5th overall, but more significant was Tejay van Garderen's concession of 3:36. The American was perhaps the only man in the upper reaches of the classification who might better Nibali in Saturday's final time trial, but now he is some 9:25 off the pace.
"Today seemed like it would be a calm stage but in the finale it exploded," Nibali said afterwards. "The stage was very long and my team worked a lot for the first 70km. There was a lot of wind, too, and there were a lot of riders trying to get in the break, so we had to shut down a lot of moves."
Nibali pointed to his Astana teammates' early work – and, indeed, their work throughout his two-week tenure in yellow – as a contributing factor to their absence from his side on the final climb of Port de Balès, but insisted that he was not unduly concerned. Jakob Fuglsang's crash in the Alps has limited his contribution since, and Tanel Kangert was Nibali's last man on the road to Bagnères-de-Luchon.
"On Port de Balès, Movistar set a very high tempo, and I knew that Valverde was the one to watch, especially as he could make a selection going onto the descent," Nibali said. "Maybe my men weren't there with me on the last climb but they're doing great work all told, and besides, today there weren't a lot of my rivals with teammates in the front group either."
In spite of the relative lack of support, Nibali appeared comfortable on the Port de Balès, tracking Valverde at close quarters and then taking care to dive for Pinot's wheel as soon as he launched the first of his accelerations four kilometres from the summit. He finished alongside Valverde, Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud, some 8:32 down on stage winner Michael Rogers.
Nibali reiterated that he views Valverde as his most dangerous rival – albeit a very distant one – at this Tour, but he was later at pains to dismiss the notion that he was undervaluing the threat posed by Pinot.
"Clearly, I'm not underestimating anybody. I learned this last year at the Vuelta [where he was surprisingly beaten by Chris Horner – ed.]," said Nibali. "When Pinot was attacked on the climb today, I was the first person to respond and shut him down. And in the final kilometre, when Valverde left a gap open in front of me, I was the one who shut down Pinot."
The Tour's first day in the Pyrenees brought the peloton over the Col de Portet-d'Aspet and the descent took them past the Fabio Casartelli memorial on the descent, which commemorates the Italian's fatal crash at the 1995 Tour.
"I was only a little boy when Castartelli died but I can remember seeing the images on television and the uncertainty of the commentators," Nibali said. "I was thinking of Casartelli today, it's very important. I was already very happy to win a stage on the day of the anniversary on Saturday and dedicate it to his family."
On Wednesday, the Tour makes the trek deeper into the Pyrenees, tackling the Col du Portillon, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Val Louron-Azet and the summit finish at Pla d'Adet in the space of just 125 kilometres. Such short stages have made an enormous impact at the Tour in recent years – not least the miniature epic to l'Alpe d'Huez in the 2011 – though Nibali wondered if accumulated fatigue will temper some attacking instincts.
"Tomorrow is a shorter stage and it should be more intense," Nibali said. "It's going to be a difficult day but a lot of riders will have used up a lot of energy today. We'll take it day by day. We've been working with the yellow jersey for two weeks now and we've done a good job up to now."
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