ARENBERG, France (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) delivered the promised psychological blow to his rivals on a wet and muddy cobbled stage of the Tour de France, building on his yellow jersey lead.
With only five days down, the Sicilian can already forget about Chris Froome (Sky) who abandoned Wednesday, and rest easier with a near-minute lead on the GC.
“Today was very stressful, hard, and we went fast from the start to the finish,” Nibali said, “but I was able to pull off a number.”
The numbers do not lie because, ignoring the non-classification riders, Nibali has 50 seconds on his nearest rival, Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Americans Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) are around two minutes back. The 2007 and 2009 winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) lost 2:35, and fell to 2:37 down.
Nibali began the cobbled stage from Ypres to Arenberg, covering seven cobbled sectors, in they yellow jersey by two seconds. He pushed that lead even further when the race erupted on the first cobbletone sector.
“The yellow jersey gave me a little extra today,” he said. “Thanks to having it on my back, I was able to maintain my front position a little easier.
“When that split happened on the first sector, I had my teammates hit the front and build on the gap. Lieuwe Westra was going well, we told him to try to get in the escape and we were able to link up. Jakob Fuglsang was a mountain bike champion, and he knows how to ride. We were up front, and you saw what happened next.”
Tinkoff and BMC Racing tried to pull back Nibali’s group for their leaders but couldn’t make inroads to the Astana men. Such was Astana’s rhythm, Nibali, Westra and Fuglsang were able to pull away with eventual stage winner Lars Boom (Belkin) and leave behind cobbled riders like Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek).
“The others crashed at some point, I heard. I nearly even crashed myself when trying to avoid my teammate who went down. I was lucky to stay on my feet,” Nibali said. “I felt well, though. I learned a lot of from Peter Van Petegem when we came here this spring to preview the stage, and from Filippo Pozzato, who wrote me this morning to tell me to try to race at the front as much as possible, and to keep my arms relaxed holding onto the handlebars. And, of course, you also have to have the legs, to make it happen.”
Team Sky now will try to take on ‘The Shark’ with Australian Richie Porte, who trails at 1:54. Despite its hardship losing Froome, the team tipped its hat to Nibali’s show of strength on the wet and muddy cobbles in Northern France.
“It was exciting wasn’t it?” team Sky boss, David Brailsford said. “When you see what Nibali did, if you are a bike fan, then you’d have to say that was impressive. That was just unbelievable to see him ride away from Cancellara and Sagan on the cobbles. That was exciting, and we’ll remember that for a long time.”
Nibali will have time to celebrate his ride because the next serious challenge for him shouldn’t come until Saturday, three days away, when the peloton races up La Mauselaine.