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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Velo magazine, the annual awards issue.
It was the stuff of legend. Rain. Mud. Gloom. And a streak of turquoise and yellow Lycra ripping the legs off of an entire battalion of mud-caked riders, suffering in the trenches of northern France.
Sure, Vincenzo Nibali had won grand tours before, had battled for Monument wins on multiple occasions, and had an intimidating nickname — the Shark of Messina — but he became nothing short of a mythical beast on stage 5 of the Tour de France when he rode away from his GC rivals, then past classics specialists Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, on the precarious rounded granite slabs leading toward Roubaix.
By the time Nibali (Astana) barnstormed into Paris with four stage victories and more than a seven-minute winning margin, there was no question about who deserved to win the 2014 Tour de France.
Sure, some may say his victory deserves an asterisk because both Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) crashed out, but as the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it.
It’s difficult to remember now, but before the Tour de France started, many said Nibali didn’t look like a winner. That quickly changed in the Tour’s first week.
Classics-style rain and wind forced organizers to remove two of nine cobblestone sectors, but what remained provided plenty of spark to light the powder keg. In what was arguably the best stage of the entire Tour — though some contend the cobbles took the air out of what should have been a super-tight race — Nibali simply crushed the competition.
Froome, who had crashed heavily the previous stage, didn’t even make it to the cobbles. The defending Tour champion crashed twice during the early run-in to the pavé, and just like that he was out of the Tour, without even causing a ripple.
The peloton, filled with nervous GC riders and stage-hungry specialists, including eventual winner Lars Boom and Belkin teammate Sep Vanmarcke (who would puncture late), roared onto the early pavé sectors. Astana quickly made its presence felt, massing at the front to set a searing pace and keep Nibali protected. The speed and treacherous conditions of rain and mud forced riders to ride the crown of the cobbles, in the middle of the road. Anyone else who lost the line was soon sampling the flavor of French mud.
That dynamic stretched the peloton to the breaking point. There were a few minor crashes that disrupted the tempo, but most of those came later, after Nibali’s Astana boys lined out the peloton into a single-file streak of fear and loathing.
Nibali shredded the peloton, and simply rode everyone off of his wheel, crossing the line third, just 19 seconds behind Boom, with Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang coasting across the line with him. It was like Sherman’s March to the Sea; Nibali left a trail of destruction in his wake. Andrew Talansky lost 2:22, and Alberto Contador 2:54. Neither would make it beyond the Vosges.
In that one stage, Nibali would take more gains against his most important rivals than he would in the looming mountains or time trials. It would take Nibali two more weeks to eventually win the yellow jersey, but he set the tone, and built a comfortable lead that dark day in northern France. For the remainder of the Tour, Nibali was like a cat playing with mice