LE VALTIN, France (VN) — The prelude is over. After a week of tension, crashes, sprints, and nerves, the Tour de France shifted gears Saturday in the foggy summits of the Vosges.
The first of three stages across the deceptively steep Vosges signaled the beginning of the “real” Tour, providing the first realistic picture of who is going to win the yellow jersey.
Saturday’s explosive final above Gérardmer, including the 1.8km finishing ramp up 10 percent grades, saw Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) do what he had to do. He not only put race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) under pressure, but eliminated other rivals, leap-frogging from 16th to sixth in one surge.
Contador was second to winner Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who won out of a breakaway, but he took three morale-boosting seconds on Nibali, putting everyone on notice he’s bound to make up for his disaster over the cobblestones Wednesday.
“What we wanted to do was to remove a few riders because in the end there were too many who could later play an important tactical role in the third week,” Contador said after the stage. “Nibali ceded a little in the end, but the real objective was not to drop Nibali or [Alejandro] Valverde, but rather the other well-positioned riders.”
The relatively short summit finale served up as the first major reshuffling of the GC since Wednesday’s chaotic cobblestone stage. As the Tour curved upward for the first time, it also revealed who has legitimate climbing legs.
Tinkoff-Saxo took the initiative, with Rafa Majka, Nicolas Roche, and Michael Rogers all setting a blistering pace heading to the final wall.
Riders were struggling to keep pace, including Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), who dipped from fifth to 10th, Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who stayed fourth but was gapped, and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), who dipped from sixth to 11th.
“When you make the race hard, that’s when you can make the differences,” Contador said. “Considering it was the first mountaintop finish, and only 1.8km, we can be very satisfied. The day after tomorrow [Monday] is going to be even harder.”
Contador admitted that he eased up a bit in the final kilometer, saving his legs for what he believed would be a chance for the stage win. When he realized Kadri had already won, he finally re-accelerated.
Strapped to his wheel was Nibali, who made it safely through the stage despite having key helper Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) nearly crash. Tanel Kangert paced the Dane, helping him stay in second place overall, while Michele Scarponi was able to stay with Nibali until the final surges.
Nibali also looked to have gearing problems in the final 200 meters when Contador gapped him ever so slightly, and said he should have dropped a gear the same time Contador did.
“Alberto took control of the stage, and the last climb was better for him than me. Alberto attacked me, but I was going well,” Nibali said. “The race is not a duel just between me and Contador. Richie Porte [Sky] was there, and we saw Valverde riding with ease. I am staying calm, because I know Contador is going to attack us. We are trying to handle the situation the best we can.”
Hot, cold for Talansky, van Garderen
It was a day of opposites for the two American podium hopes.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) slipped out of the top 10, dropping from eighth to 16th, when he slid out on a right-hander with other riders approaching the base of the final climb.
Talansky, who crashed heavily the previous stage in Nancy, struggled with chain problems after the crash, his podium hopes taking a blow as he ceded more than two minutes to Contador and Nibali; he now sits 4:22 back.
Talansky did not speak to reporters at the Garmin bus after the stage, but Garmin sport director Charlie Wegelius said two crashes in a row “is never good.”
“He lost 2:16 on Contador, so you don’t want to lose that kind of time, but it’s still only the eighth stage, and the wheel turns around everybody,” Wegelius told reporters. “Someone will fall off tomorrow, with this weather. … It’s unfortunate, and no one wants it to happen, but you almost have to put it into the planning in a race like this.”
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) bounced back from his heavy crash Friday, riding with the favorites until the final accelerations. The steep, punchy climb was not ideal for van Garderen’s style, yet he recovered nicely from his worrisome crash Friday, moving up from 18th to 13th, at 3:34 back.
“I am doing my best to brush it off, and keep moving forward,” van Garderen said after the stage. “I think today I did a good job. But we have another of hard days before the rest day.”
Two more Vosges battlegrounds
Standing between the race-weary peloton and Tuesday’s rest day are two more challenging stages across the Vosges.
Sunday’s 170km ninth stage from Gérardmer to Mulhouse crisscrosses across the breadth of the Vosges with six rated climbs, including the hardest yet in the Tour, the Cat. 1 Le Markstein. With a second-category climb right off the gun, it could be explosive very early. The finish line comes after 20km of flats, but anyone dropped early will see his GC hopes dashed.
Monday’s stage up La Planche des Belles Filles, with the 5.9km finale at 8.5 percent, returns to the battleground where Chris Froome (Sky) announced his Tour credentials in 2012. Froome is at home nursing a pair of fractures, but Sky teammate Richie Porte confirmed his GC credentials Saturday by staying close to Nibali and Contador, climbing into third at 1:58 back.
Speaking to VeloNews before Saturday’s stage, Porte was already quietly confident of his capabilities in Froome’s absence, and said he’s ready to follow the fireworks that inevitably have to come from Contador.
“I don’t think I need to be on the attack. Alberto is the one. He’s got to take a lot of time in Vincenzo. That’s good for me, because the other guys have to be playing catch-up,” Porte said. “Not having Chris here, it’s not great, but we are looked at less in the race to control things. Movistar, Saxo, and Astana, they’re the ones with the pressure. It’s a bit strange for Sky to take the back seat, not take on the race on so much.”
It was Tinkoff-Saxo that took control of Saturday’s stage, slipping into its familiar role as the aggressor, and team boss Bjarne Riis said the script will repeat itself across the weekend.
“The Vosges will not decide the Tour, but the stages will be interesting. We have to take advantage of every opportunity,” Riis said. “Alberto has to make up some time. Perhaps there will be some chances for us. We know we cannot wait until the Pyrénées.”
And the Alps are looming between the Vosges and the Pyrénées. This Tour is just starting.