CAMBRAI, France (VN) — What a contrast a year, and some dry cobblestones, can make in the Tour de France.
Unless your last name was Nibali or Pinot, Tuesday’s highly anticipated stage 4 rumble across seven sectors of France’s most notorious pavé ended in a truce.
Twelve months ago, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) rode like Moses through a sea of mud, rain, and wind to lay the foundation for his yellow jersey. On Tuesday, with nerves ratcheted tighter than a vise, the air was blown out of the balloon as soon as everyone crossed the finish line with a collective sigh of relief.
With the exception of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), last year’s surprise podium-man who lost 3:23, there was quiet jubilation inside every team bus harboring a GC pretender.
“We can all let off a big sigh of relief after today,” Froome said, wrapping up the feeling of most. “It was a stressful stage, and sketchy on the cobbles, and I know we’ll all be sleeping a lot better tonight.”
For the second year in a row, cobblestones provided a major talking point in the first week of the Tour. Unlike last year, when the pavé battle proved a key turning point in the race, Tuesday’s pounding procession was more about its lack of race-changing drama.
All of the ‘Fab Four’ safely negotiated the treachery on the pavé, as did nearly every other GC rider. Unlike last year’s cobblestone chaos, there were no crashes, no significant gaps, and no major time losses.
“Last year, with the wet conditions, it was much more dangerous,” said BMC’s Manuel Quinziato, who helped guide Tejay van Garderen safely home. “It started to rain a little bit, and I crashed on a corner, but thank God the cobbles were still dry. It was less technical than last year, and the GC guys handled themselves much better this year. Last year, you needed real skills to survive, like we saw with Nibali.”
Nibali goes down swinging
All eyes were on Nibali, and Astana did not fail to try. It put Lieuwe Westra into the day’s main breakaway, and then massed at the front of the peloton barreling toward the pavé. Nibali tried a repeat of his feats from 2014, but Mother Nature conspired against him. Rather than facing mud, rain, and wind, conditions were much more benign Tuesday. Every time Nibali attacked, others would quickly smother the move. He could never catch fire. An eventual puncture from Lars Boom, winner of last year’s dramatic stage, took the wind out of Astana’s sails.
“We didn’t change a thing when compared to last year. The only thing that changed was the weather,” said Nibali, lamenting a lost opportunity. “After these opening stages, I feel good physically. I have a deficit to overcome, and I am going to try to do that every chance I have.”
Astana boss Giuseppe Martinelli took two things from Tuesday’s stage; relief and clarity. Relief that his pupil didn’t have his own problems, and certainty that Froome is the man to beat.
“The team was very strong again this year. The difference was it wasn’t as difficult as last year, because the weather changed everything,” Martinelli said. “In these conditions, we knew that it would be difficult to make any real differences on this pavé, without water and mud. The most important thing is that nothing bad happened to Vincenzo [Nibali].
“We saw again today that Froome is very strong,” Martinelli continued. “Right now, everyone can see that Froome is the strongest. This Tour is so complicated, you cannot think too far in advance. You truly have to take this Tour one day at a time. You can only start to think about the next day when you’ve finished the stage.”
Losing yellow, gaining ground
Many saw Tuesday’s long march as a chance, perhaps the last, to put serious distance into Froome. Last year, he never made it to the pavé, crashing heavily the day before, and again during the approach to the cobbles, abandoning early and never touching rubber to cobblestone.
Many were impressed with Froome as he negotiated the hazards with panache. He averted a few possible problems, including once when a Katusha rider nearly left him in the ditch, and even managed to take a dig himself. Despite losing the yellow jersey to stage-winner Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step), Froome immediately realized the enormity of the importance of crossing the line alongside the other favorites.
“I wasn’t trying to show how strong I was on the cobbles today, it was about staying out of trouble,” Froome said. “When it got over 200km, it was more about who had the legs, and after the last section, I had Geraint [Thomas] ahead of me, so we thought, ‘Why not?’ and I had a little attack. My legs felt good but unfortunately it all came back together.”
Froome is in an enviable position. He’s already leading many of his GC rivals by a promising margin, and after his surge up the Mur de Huy on Monday, he’s confirmed to the peloton that he has the legs to win this Tour.
Contador’s wheel of fortune
Nothing is ever easy for Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), who narrowly avoided disaster after riding the closing 25km on a damaged rear wheel. After bashing over a late cobble sector, Contador noticed his back wheel rubbing against his brakes. Rather than risk stopping, and losing contact with the fast-charging lead group, Contador loosened his brake pad, and gritted his teeth to the finish line.
“It was important to get through the day without crashes, without losing any time. Despite a mechanical problem, we managed to save the day,” Contador said. “The team today was extraordinary. They did a great job. Everyone could see Peter [Sagan] did tremendous work, including giving up his options to win the stage. The sensations were pretty good.”
Last year, Contador suffered through the cobbles, losing nearly three minutes to Nibali, a handicap that would haunt him all the way into the Vosges, where he would crash out of the Tour for good.
This year, he was thankful to see better weather. Tinkoff-Saxo brought some big engines to help, including classics superstar Sagan, who helped pace Contador, and stayed with his team leader even when late-race moves looked to be taking root. It came back together, and Sagan could still manage to sprint to third behind John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin).
“These are complicated stages, with a lot of stress, and crashes. The bunch was very nervous today. Everyone wanted to be up front. I am glad to get through the day,” Contador said. “The approaches to the sectors of pavé were incredible. The tension, the danger, and fear of losing position, that’s even worse than the actual sectors of pavé themselves.”
When he felt his tire rubbing, he had to make a choice on the fly: to stop or not to stop. Being so close to the finale, Contador didn’t want to risk a bike change.
“At one moment, I was thinking because it was still pretty far from the finish line that I would change the bike, but on the other hand, if I stop, change the bike, and lose contact with the group, I could lose a lot of time,” he said. “I decided to continue, and I was able to hold out to the finish line. I am glad to avoided any serious troubles today.”
Thankful at Movistar
Perhaps the team with the most fear Tuesday was Movistar. Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana is the lightest and smallest of the top favorites, and he could have faced the toughest time in the saddle against the pavé. Movistar gambled by bringing a squad packed with climbers, and didn’t have much support on the cobbles.
Quintana rode in a pair of semi-classics in Belgium this spring and reconned the sectors to get a taste of what was ahead, but no one knew what to expect. They were crossing their collective fingers at the start. Team boss Eusebio Unzué was visibly tense before the start, “We could lose everything today, we just don’t know.”
Quintana stood tall, making it safely across the cobbles to finish with the favorites, but even he admitted it was far from easy.
“It was very difficult today,” Quintana said briefly at the team bus. “Thanks to the support of my teammates, I managed to get through it. It was not easy, but I survived.”
That sentiment echoed around the Movistar bus. Riders arrived, covered in dust, but happy that Quintana, along with co-captain Alejandro Valverde, did not bleed time. It was critical for Quintana’s chances not to lose additional time after ceding nearly two minutes to Froome in the opening stages.
“For us, this is like a victory to not have had any problems,” said Movistar’s Gorka Izagirre. “We saved the day, and that’s good. Nairo [Quintana] was very solid, and Alejandro [Valverde] even more so. We just need to keep surviving this first week. It’s a shame that we have these lost two minutes on top of us, but there’s still a lot of racing, and anything can happen.”
On the stage that many expected everything to happen, almost nothing happened at all. Call it a stalemate across the cobbles.