Vincenzo Nibali is back on top of the Tour GC...

Contador’s exit reshuffles the GC deck … again

Nibali: "I was ready for a big duel with Contador in the mountains. It's a pity the Tour has lost two big protagonists"

BELFORT, France (VN) — Defending champion Chris Froome (Sky), gone. Spanish star Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), going home with a fractured tibia. It’s been a brutal Tour de France, with two top favorites out of the race before the first rest day.

Days after the Tour rebooted, forgetting about Froome and the chaos over the cobblestones in stage 5, there was growing anticipation for an epic shootout between Contador and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). The storyline changed again in an instant.

Contador, one of the most deft bike handlers in the bunch, hit a pothole in road on a wet descent and went toppling to the ground. He bravely tried to press on, but pain, later diagnosed as a fractured tibia, sent the proud Spaniard packing. After pedaling 20km in pain, Contador hugged his teammates, stepped off his bike, and the 2014 Tour took yet another wild turn.

Riding pristinely through the chaos has been Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who reconfirmed his favorite status Monday with an emphatic stage victory to reclaim the yellow jersey.

“Alberto crashed in front of me, and it’s a shame because he would have made a good Tour,” Nibali said diplomatically. “Alberto is a big fighter, and he would have made a big duel, without the crash. Crashes are part of the race. I could also crash.”

Nibali, however, refused to take the bait when asked if he wins the Tour it will be because Froome and Contador both crashed out.

“It would be difficult to say I win because Froome and Contador have crashed,” he said. “I already had a good lead, and I was ready for a big duel with Contador in the mountains. It’s a pity the Tour has lost two big protagonists.”

Halfway through the 2014 Tour, and the peloton has been shredded by crashes, tension, foul weather, and chaos at every turn.

Crashes took out Froome and Contador, but others have endured their fair share of mishaps and stayed in the game. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) crashed once in England, twice on the cobbles, and suffered a fourth, heavier fall into Nancy, but he’s battled through, scrapping his way into seventh overall, at 3:56 back.

“It was a tricky descent, with rough roads. I didn’t get a good look at [Contador’s crash], but I saw his bike, and I saw him on the side of the road,” van Garderen said after the stage. “I was hoping he was able to get back up. That is a real shame.”

At the foggy summit in the Vosges, riders and teams were pondering what impact Contador’s exit will have on the GC.

Coming into Monday’s stage, many were looking at Contador as the only rider capable of seriously challenging the ever-steady Nibali, who took big gains over the cobblestones last week. Now, with Contador out, Nibali quickly reasserted himself, proving that a strong offense is the best defense.

After a wild stage, featuring attacks from best young rider Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), the GC favorites surged to the fore as expected, but without Contador.

Despite seeing Italian climber Michele Scarponi overcook a corner on a wet descent, Astana delivered Nibali to the base of the short but steep Belles Filles summit. Jakob Fuglsang, who started second place on “virtual” GC, plummeted to 12th overall, leaving no doubt where Astana is placing its priorities.

Attacking up the Belles Filles, the first hard summit finish of this Tour, Nibali wanted to stamp his authority on the race, to show that his yellow jersey isn’t only due to his skill over the cobbles or his luck to avoid crashing.

“I think that I am at a very high level, as high as I was last year for the Giro. I bet everything on being in top form for the Tour this year,” Nibali said. “We’ve been controlling the race since the Arenberg [cobbles] stage, and we will work to protect the yellow jersey. I have some dangerous rivals, like Porte and Valverde. I will work to protect my advantage.”

With Froome and Contador gone, new protagonists are eagerly stepping into the void.

Unfortunately, American hopeful Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) struggled through a bad day and fell to 26th overall at 14:44 back, an opportunity lost for the Critérium du Dauphiné winner.

Porte and Valverde have moved into that space vacated by the American.

Both bring strong teams, with equally high ambitions. Valverde is one of the few riders in this Tour who has a grand tour victory (2009 Vuelta a España), and Porte now counts on a strong team that came to this Tour to win with Froome.

“I was the only one to react when Nibali attacked,” Porte said after the stage. “I felt good today, but not good enough to bring the whole world to the line. When Nibali attacked, we had to answer. He already has enough time on us.”

Team Sky, the British squad that has been at the sharp end of the action over the past two Tours, was looking forward to riding in the slipstream of Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo. With Contador gone, and Porte slotting into second overall at 2:23 back, things will change. Astana will certainly have all the weight to control the race, but Porte is now viewed as Astana’s most dangerous rival.

“I think patience is key. You always have to be ready and alert, and look for your opportunity,” Sky principal Dave Brailsford said after stage 9. “You have to change and adapt to the situation. You have to concentrate on the riders who are here, and not the riders who are not here. You have to do that quickly, and we’re excited about Richie, and to see what he can do.”

Valverde, too, has been able to avoid the disasters that usually take him out of the Tour. He survived a harrowing day across the cobblestones, when he crashed early and was forced to ride the final 60km on the bike of teammate JJ Rojas, some 3cm smaller than his. With teammate Nairo Quintana, hot off winning the Giro d’Italia in May and skipping this Tour, Valverde wants to take full advantage of what may be his final Tour leading Movistar.

With Froome and Contador nursing their wounds on the sidelines, it remains to be seen if anyone can seriously rattle Nibali’s cage.

“I think Nibali’s position as the strongest rider in the race is going to pretty much be unchallenged now,” Garmin-Sharp sport director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews‘ Matthew Beaudin. “But it does leave a massive responsibility for Astana to control the race for more than two weeks. I think the race for the podium spots and the minor placing is going to be ever-changing. But I think at the moment it looks as though Nibali has a pretty firm grip on the race.”

And who’s to say Nibali is immune to the bad luck that’s hit Froome and Contador, and so many others?

Nibali rolls into the rest day in a very enviable situation. He holds a solid lead on his rivals, and the most treacherous and dangerous stages are behind him. Following Tuesday’s rest day, the roads in the transition stages to the Alps can be narrow, but the pace of the peloton will diminish with the GC more defined. Breakaways should set the tone until the Alps, meaning Astana will have the work to control the race, but the peloton will not be riding on the rivet as it has through the first half of the Tour.

With Contador and Froome gone, this is now, more than ever, Nibali’s Tour to lose. And win.