Another brick in the wall and the obstacle now facing Vincenzo Nibali at this Tour de France risks becoming insurmountable. An ill-starred opening week ended in much the same vein as it had started as the Italian conceded a further 35 seconds in the stage 9 team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec.
Nibali was the first of the overall contenders to tackle the demanding 28-kilometre course through one of the great heartlands of French cycling and, as expected, his Astana squad had the provisional quickest time at the finish. After Lars Boom, the strongman in the opening half swung off ahead of the final climb of the Côte de Cadoudal, Nibali himself guided his four remaining teammates up to the finish line, stopping the clock in 32:50.
“In the finale I tried to set a high rhythm but not a very violent one to make sure that all five of us got to the finish together. I think I can be more than satisfied, even if we’ll have to wait for everyone to finish for a full picture,” Nibali said at the finish, before he and his teammates were ushered towards the hot seats by the podium area. “I had good sensations. This time trial was one long acceleration from start to finish, but we went very strongly and even [Michele] Scarponi showed that he had recovered well from illness.
By the time they had taken their pews, the news emanating from out on the course was not encouraging. Movistar still had all nine of their riders intact as they scorched through the 20.5km mark some 19 seconds quicker than Astana, while Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo squad, too, were ahead at each intermediate check point.
Nairo Quintana and Movistar duly relieved Astana of top spot, coming home some 31 seconds quicker. Nibali and company fared a little better against Tinkoff-Saxo, conceding just 7 seconds, but they were soundly beaten by the final two starters, as Sky and BMC scorched around the course 34 and 35 seconds faster, respectively.
Nibali boards the charter plane that carries the Tour peloton from Lorient to Pau on Sunday evening in 13th place overall, already some 2:22 down on the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky). The lowest-placed of the so-called Big Four, he is also 1:19 behind Contador and 23 seconds off Quintana. A year ago, Nibali seized the initiative – and, as it turned out, the Tour itself – in the first week. This time out, he is decidedly on the back foot.
Looking to the Pyrenees
As he waited for the convoy of coaches to depart for Lorient airport afterwards, Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli told Cyclingnews that Astana’s fifth place in the team time trial had been an utterly fair reflection of the respective strengths of the best squads in the race at this juncture.
“I’d have been happy if we’d lost 10 seconds fewer but it has to be said that result is a fair one,” Martinelli said. “We’ve seen in the first seven or eight days that Tinkoff, Sky, BMC and Movistar all have a little bit more than us. This was a time trial where there were no mitigating factors – the result reflects the standing of the teams right now.”
In his post-stage press conference, Froome mused that he would have expected Nibali to gain time on his rivals rather than lose it in an opening week filled with Classics-style racing. Instead, despite a game showing on the pavé on stage 4, Nibali has yielded ground at regular intervals, though the most costly misstep of all came when he missed the split on the first road stage in the Netherlands a week ago.
“I don’t think the 10 seconds we lost yesterday or the 35 we lost today are a lot,” Martinelli said. “But that 1:28 we lost in Holland cost us a bit of confidence, so we need to recover well tomorrow. Then it’s the mountains, where everyone has to go at his maximum. It’s more about the individuals, and I’m confident.”
Nibali, too, looked to strike an upbeat note when looking ahead to the remaining two weeks in the Pyrenees and Alps. “Up to now we’ve lived a very difficult Tour, characterised by a lot of nervousness and stress, high pace on the flat and explosive finales. I don’t think I’ve found the right form just yet but I’m still confident for what might happen now,” he said. “Now the Tour of the climbers starts and I’m confident.”
The problem for Nibali, however, is that Froome, Contador, Quintana and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) are all ahead of him and have all shown markedly better form in the high mountains this season that he has. Nibali’s approach to the 2014 Tour was similarly low-key, of course, and he ended up being utterly dominant, but a moment’s weakness in the finale at Mûr-de-Bretagne on Saturday was a further ill portent.
“It surprised us. If he were a car, you’d say that something had just stopped working in the motor. But I think he should still have faith in his own ability,” Martinelli said. “I’m confident. I can’t not be confident when it comes to Vincenzo.”