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MULHOUSE, France (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) keeps saying that the 2014 Tour de France is not simply a duel between him and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), but no one believes him.
There are plenty of other contenders for the yellow jersey, including Richie Porte (Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), but Nibali and Contador stand tall against a largely untested Tour field. Few match them in terms of experience, depth of squads, wily managers, or the strength of character the two leading protagonists bring to this Tour.
With an injured Chris Froome (Sky) out of the race, Contador and Nibali are fighting to fill the void left by the defending champion and the front-line position held by Team Sky over the past two Tours.
On Sunday, Astana was content to let the yellow jersey ride away. In fact, they were almost begging someone to take it. Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), a solid rider who represents no real threat on GC, will now endure the post-race protocol that comes with being the Tour’s maillot jaune. After defending yellow for a week, Astana and Nibali were glad to see it become someone else’s problem, at least for now.
Monday’s summit finale at Belles Filles will conclude the Tour’s first real mountain stage, and provide a better idea of where everyone stands on GC. So far, Nibali has surprised many with his aggressive and astute racing, while Contador, the season’s most dominant rider so far this year, is right where many expected him to be. Even though he ceded nearly three minutes on the cobblestones Wednesday, Contador is still viewed by many as the favorite to win, which seems odd, considering he is ninth overall at 4:08 back.
Monday’s short but intense summit finale will be the opening salvo of what should be a thrilling ride across the Alps and Pyrénées over the next 10 days.
Contador needs to claw back time. Some viewed the three seconds he took on Nibali on Saturday as a sign that there are chinks in the Italian’s armor. Others are convinced that this Tour is Nibali’s to lose, and that only a major blunder or a crash will prevent him from becoming the first Italian to win the yellow jersey since Marco Pantani in 1998.
With Contador forced to attack, the Tour is set up for a thrilling battle all the way to the final 54km time trial on July 26 in Bergerac.
Here’s how Contador and Nibali stack up in the decisive elements going into what should be an epic Tour duel:
Team strength: On paper, both Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo are quite equal. Each brought strong, deep, and experienced teams to help their respective leaders. Neither has a pure climber to help in the high mountains. Contador lost Jesus Hernández to a crash this week, and although Astana brings Michele Scarponi, he’s no longer the explosive climber he was a few years ago.
Instead, both teams seems to expect their captains to fend for themselves in the final ramps, when it’s largely mano-a-mano between the favorites anyway. Both teams chose experience and toughness, with trusted veterans such as Michael Rogers, Matteo Tosatto, and Nicolas Roche to help Contador, and Tanel Kangert, Andriy Grivko, and Lieuwe Westra to protect Nibali.
Astana has a second GC card to play with Jakob Fuglsang, but if Nibali is carrying yellow into the Pyrénées, the talented Dane will be expected to offer himself up as a sacrifice.
One key point: Astana has done a lot of work to control the pace since Nibali’s coup in stage 2. Keeping yellow until the cobbles on Wednesday was part of Astana’s plan, but they were glad to see Gallopin take the leader’s jersey Sunday. In last year’s Vuelta a España, Nibali captured the leader’s jersey early, something that team boss Giuseppe Martinelli said cost Astana later in the race, opening the door for Chris Horner to snatch the win.
Tinkoff-Saxo, meanwhile, is masterful at setting a trap, giving them a slight edge over Astana, which is fully on defensive mode right now. Even without “Little Jesus,” Tinkoff-Saxo has the firepower and experience to take it to Nibali.
Advantage: Equal — the difference will be which team can stay healthy and avoid crashes going into the final week.
Head games: Contador has legendary inner strength that’s helped him overcome several setbacks in his life, both on and off the bike, that might have sunk lesser men. He fought through a brain injury that nearly derailed his career just as he was starting, and then he endured the humiliation of his clenbuterol case nearly a decade later.
Nibali, meanwhile, is equally stubborn, and has one of the best poker faces in the peloton. His face becomes a indecipherable mask, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s suffering or breathing through a straw, making it difficult for rivals to try to break him.
Nibali has grown into a leader over the past few years, but it’s Contador who has an edge when it comes to inner drive and ambition. The Spaniard won the 2009 Tour de France despite having to share the team with Lance Armstrong, who, along with former director Johan Bruyneel, seemed to try to do everything possible to make sure Contador didn’t win, including leaving him stranded at the hotel without a team car to drive him to the decisive final time trial around Lake Annecy. Contador was the only rider to overcome the larger-than-life persona of Armstrong, and win.
Those close to Contador say he’s more determined than ever to win this Tour, and when Contador puts his mind to something, he usually gets it.
Experience: Nibali and Contador stand head and shoulders above their immediate GC rivals in this Tour. They are the only racers to win multiple grand tours since 2008, the year the biological passport was introduced, with Nibali winning the Vuelta in 2010 and the Giro in 2013. Contador has won six grand tours since 2008, but was disqualified from the 2010 Tour and the 2011 Giro as part of his clenbuterol case. Horner and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are the only other riders who’ve won a grand tour.
Nibali and Contador both know what it takes to manage their efforts, control their rivals, and still have something in the tank to attack. They also know when it’s right to be aggressive, something their younger, more inexperienced rivals are still learning.
Nibali, however, is viewed by some as missing out on races he could have won, while Contador has the killer instinct and racing savvy to deliver victories. His raid during the penultimate mountain stage during the 2012 Vuelta is considered one of the best tactical moves of the past decade.
Sport director: The two men are backed by two of the most experienced, wily, and perhaps notorious sport directors in the sport. Giuseppe Martinelli heads up Astana, while Bjarne Riis leads Tinkoff-Saxo. Martinelli boasts six grand tours, including five Giros and one Tour, including Pantani’s Giro-Tour double in 1998, the last year anyone accomplished that grand-tour feat.
Riis has less grand-tour success, winning the 2008 Tour with Carlos Sastre; the infamous 2006 Giro, when Ivan Basso won by more than nine minutes as the Operación Puerto doping scandal erupted in Spain; and the 2012 Vuelta with Contador in his comeback from his ban. Riis can also count the 2010 Tour with Andy Schleck, following Contador’s disqualification.
Both know every trick in the book, and over the next two weeks they’ll be trying to outmaneuver each another. That could open opportunities for other teams, but Contador vows not to repeat his mistake from the Critérium du Dauphiné, when he marked Froome too closely and let Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) ride away with the yellow jersey.
Astana will have Nibali’s time gains as well as the Fuglsang card to play, while Tinkoff-Saxo will have to try to isolate, and then out-gun Nibali. Either way, it should be fun to watch the tactical games.
Advantage: Contador, simply because he will have the incentive to attack.
Legs: At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is horsepower. Contador ripped through the spring calendar, winning or finishing second in every race he started, while Nibali was winless until dashing to the Italian title in late June. Some wonder if Contador can hold his form through July; others speculate that Nibali was playing possum all season, waiting to peak for an all-out drive for yellow in July.
If Nibali is on good form, this Tour could well be a race for the podium. Porte is the only legitimate Tour threat within two minutes of Nibali. Saturday’s stage revealed Nibali could match Contador in short accelerations, an important test for the Italian. On longer, grinding climbs, Nibali should be able to pace himself well against Contador and his other rivals.
Tinkoff-Saxo will need to make the race very hard very early to try to rattle Nibali, isolate him, and then unleash Contador. Even if Nibali gets dropped in the final kilometer, he will still be able to defend his yellow jersey. Contador needs to take big chunks of time, at least 30 seconds per summit finish. Of course, Nibali can have a bad day or crash, and everything could change in an instant, but Astana is hoping to keep Nibali in a leading position going into the Pyrénées for the final week.
Many believe that in modern cycling, grand tours are won or lost in time trials. The undulating 54km time trial on stage 20 will surely decide the final podium. It’s hard to imagine either man taking a minute’s advantage in the time trial, meaning that this Tour will be likely won or lost in the mountains.
Of course, there are 20 other teams with something to say, but all eyes will be on Nibali and Contador. The Shark versus the Pistolero. It should be quite the duel.
Advantage: Too early to tell … Belles Filles will set the momentum.