After struggling in the opening 10 days, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has steadied the ship in the second half of this Tour de France and he moved up to seventh place overall following a solid showing on the road to Pra Loup on stage 17.
Nibali was expected to shine on the sinuous descent of the Col d’Allos and the pace-making of his teammate Michele Scarponi on the way up suggested that an attack was imminent, but he was unable to shake yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky) on the way down.
“Scarponi laid down a strong tempo and I tried but the road surface on the descent wasn’t in good condition. I can’t risk my neck every time,” Nibali said afterwards. “It was a very difficult descent because there were lots of changes in road surface on the way down, so it was very dangerous. [Alejandro] Valverde didn’t risk much either because one mistake could end your race.”
The tricky drop off the Allos did claim one high-profile victim, as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) crashed and lost further ground in his bid for a podium place, but Froome dealt relatively comfortably with the descent. “I’m not surprised, because it’s easier when you’re behind riders who are taking good lines around the corners,” Nibali said.
Froome was left isolated by the top of the Col d’Allos and on the short final haul to Pra Loup, but he seemed untroubled by the attacks of his rivals in the finale. The Briton finished safely alongside Nairo Quintana, 7:16 down on stage winner Simon Geschke (Giant-Alpecin), but ahead of both Nibali and Valverde.
“Froome was very good and he was able to follow and control things even though he was attacked a lot,” Nibali said. “Quintana, Valverde and I all tried, and he was alone in the end, without teammates. It’s very hard to beat him but we tried and we couldn’t do any more today.
“Quintana tried to attack near the top of the penultimate climb but Froome was always there. Again on the final climb, Quintana accelerated but Froome followed again.”
For his part, Nibali admitted relief that he has begun to put a different slant on his Tour after a wretched opening day in the Pyrenees last week, where he lost over four minutes and all hope of a repeat overall victory.
“Fortunately I didn’t suffer as much after the rest day as I did in first week,” he said. “I think I’ve gained a bit on GC and my legs are going better.”
Nibali is almost four minutes off the podium with three Alpine stages to come, though a place in the top five is more obviously achievable. He lies 1:24 behind Contador and 1:31 behind Geraint Thomas (Sky). “It’s clear that, given how things have played out, finishing in the top five overall wouldn’t be bad,” he said.